Our Listless Universities

"Our Listless Universities," Change, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Apr. 1983), pp. 29-35.


I begin with my conclusion: students in our best universities do not believe in anything, and those universities are do-ing nothing about it, nor can they. An easy-going American kind of nihilism has descended upon us, a nihilism without terror of the abyss. The great questions — God, freedom, and immor-tality, according to Kant — hardly touch the young. And the universities, which should encourage the quest for the clarification of such questions, are the very source of the doctrine which makes that quest appear futile.

The heads of the young are stuffed with a jargon derived from the despair of European thinkers, gaily repack-aged for American consumption and presented as the foundation for a pluralistic society. That jargon becomes a substitute for real ex-periences and instinct; one suspects that modern thought has produced an artificial soul to replace the old one supplied by nature, which was full of dangerous longings, loves, hates, and awes. The new soul’s language consists of terms like value, ideology, self, commitment, identity- every work derived from recent German philoso-phy, and each carrying a heavy bag-gage of dubious theoretical interpreta-tion of which its users are blissfully unaware. They take such language to be as unproblematic and immediate as night and day. It now constitutes our peculiar common sense.

The new language subtly injects into our system the perspective of “do your own thing” as the only plausible way of life. I know that sounds vaguely passe, a remnant leftover from the Sixties. But it is precisely the routinization of the passions of the Sixties that is the core of what is going on now, just as the Sixties were merely a radicalization of earlier tendencies.

The American regime has always at-tempted to palliate extreme beliefs that lead to civil strife, particularly religious beliefs. The members of sects had to obey the laws and be loyal to the Con-stitution; if they did so, others had to leave them alone. To make things work, it was thought helpful that men’s beliefs be moderated. There was a conscious, if covert, effort to weaken religious fervor by assigning religion to the realm of opinion as opposed to knowledge. But everyone had to have an intense belief in the right of freedom of religion; the existence of that natural right was not to be treated as a matter of opinion.