Can Our Campuses Be Reasonable? - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Can Our Campuses Be Reasonable?


Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education
By Jonathan Marks
(Princeton University Press, 2021)

A clear, disinterested look at the state of higher education is not for the faint of heart. Politics professor Jonathan Marks relates the following story in his new book. At an informal faculty meeting, a student proposes that his fellow students are not being properly instructed as to their white privilege. Marks speaks up to suggest that to instruct students in this way would be to require that they take a particular point on the political spectrum. A colleague announces that his arguments are a symptom of “white anxiety.”

The true shock comes next. Marks speaks up to protest that accusing a colleague of a race-based mental illness is not a productive way to advance a conversation. There falls an awkward silence, followed by a change of subject, followed by … nothing. No shock troops storm the room; no student protesters gather; no Title IX complaint is filed. One might think it the end—well, one might think that one had heard about a work meeting where someone behaved badly (Marks’s colleague, of course).

Our eyes and ears have been flooded for years with high drama from college campuses. Speakers banned. Racist songs. Hypersensitive students with trigger fingers restless on the levers of Title IX show trials. Marks is here to tell other stories, stories that in my own experience are very common but rarely make Fox News or Rod Dreher’s blog. Campus conflicts frequently end in anticlimax and sometimes in real conversation. Despite crushing, jargon-generating bureaucracy, our universities are full of dedicated teachers and willing and eager students. That is not to say that the conflict is imaginary, but it is often manageable.

Marks offers a more encouraging picture of the state of higher education: all around the country, teachers are teaching and students are learning. What is more, much of what they learn and teach are the beleaguered classics of the Western canon. He points out that Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics are still among the top ten books most assigned to college students.

Marks relates that his students, regardless of their academic ability, social class, or political orientation, are receptive to liberal learning. They respond to deep questions. They very much appreciate being taken seriously as free adults capable of reason. He insists that small groups of faculty have the power to create programs like his, one of hundreds around the country based on serious reading and open-ended rational conversation.

Marks gives a perceptive diagnosis of what is really going on beneath the media firestorms. Rather than hordes of rabid ideologues, we have a handful of activists who have more energy than anyone else. Marks compares the vast majority of characters on campus to the stock cinema figure, eyes widened, who insists, “I don’t want no trouble.” Neither faculty nor administrators are up for a fight. They permit fear to govern them. Hence the predictable outcome: victory after victory for the activists.

It is reasonable to think that activist domination of campus conflict is a partial outcome of the long decline of faculty governance. Disputes that would have once required conversation now go straight to the top of the university’s leadership. The eyes of administrators tend toward public relations rather than actual campus relationships. The difficulties on campus are difficulties in power distribution more than in ideology.

Yet Marks reminds us that faculty have hardly presented profiles in courage. They too have been stricken by fear and choose to give into unreasonable outcomes rather than to follow the more difficult path of open reasonableness and honest conversation. The silence of Marks’s colleagues in the face of the misbehaving colleague described above does not indicate agreement so much as aversion to conflict. The appropriate response for both faculty and administrators is neither revolution nor retreat, but courageous reasonableness.


Politics makes us stupid, Marks insists, and much of the book consists of Marks reasoning us back to our better selves. He also reflects intermittently on the virtue of reasonableness. In his opening paragraph, Marks points out that reason is not a mere means to a desirable outcome. Rather, reason stands as the rightful authority over our thought and action. To adopt reason as an authority is not given to us automatically—it is a human achievement. We regularly fail, as Marks says, “to follow arguments where they lead,” “to persist in thinking when it gets hard, and fail to stick to arguments that threaten our self-confidence.” He suggests that we must do more to honor reasonableness and to shame unreasonableness. A closed mind ought to be treated as a shameful thing.

The use of reason, Marks observes, requires judgement, a faculty properly cultivated by a liberal education. We frequently operate under a vision of knowledge where a single right answer is determinate. We are guided (we think) by the model of mathematics and science. Marks modestly points out that different subject matters have different levels of certainty available to them, and in political theory, for instance, it is necessary to exercise judgment in cases where reasonable people will disagree.

Definitive knowledge of politics, history, philosophy, or literature evades us not because there are no standards in these fields but because the standards leave open more than one option, thanks to the complexity of the subject matter. In these fields we are called to judge with humility and to be open to a reasonable conversation that might change our view. It is difficult to see how these fields might be conducted at all without the virtue of reasonableness Marks praises.

Wise counsel is never to be turned away in media environments like ours. Marks’s book is invaluable. His praise of the virtue of reasonableness, and his exercise of reasonableness in the book, are a tonic. But how exactly will reasonableness be restored to its rightful place as the guiding norm of a university? Here Marks’s analysis, and his recommendation to reshape what we honor and shame, falls short.

Shame, like all negative incentives, has only limited power. The real engine of human development is aspiration. We need positive ideals that stir the soul. Otherwise, the inevitable costs built into the discipline of reasonableness can be overwhelming. Some glittering object in the distance has to make the whole thing seem worth it. Otherwise, how will we be motivated to sacrifice the deep satisfaction of a prized opinion or social comfort, or the thrill of the moral crusade? What alternative motive carries enough force?

Moreover, given the massive shame culture that has been effectively cultivated by a handful of progressive activists and bureaucrat codependents, it is hard to imagine generating enough shame to counter it. What shame could Marks have offered his colleagues sufficient to outweigh the shame of suffering from “white anxiety”?

If we accept that aspiration is necessary, and that shame will not suffice, we face a difficulty: Is reasonableness inspiring? Is it “sexy” or “spicy,” as the kids say? Not on its face, and not even in Marks’s elegant account. I myself can be counseled out of my knee-jerk outrage by my wise colleague because I too seek to be reasonable, having been shaped at a formative age by a similar liberal education to the one Marks received. But such a foundation is more and more rare. What is needed today is not a reminder of something we once believed in. Rather, what is needed is conversion: a shift in ideals, motivated by the promise of something grand and wonderful.

The great saint of reasonableness, Socrates, is our traditional object of aspiration. So he should be. Yet it is not a coincidence that he, unlike Marks, rejects the possibility of mixed motives: no one is converted by the prospect of the highest virtue and the social respect given by high-end employment. That’s not to say we must reject mixed motives altogether, but we must understand where they come from. As Aristotle understood, we end up a step down from where we aim. Mixed motives are the result of a higher aspiration marred by human weakness. Without the higher aspiration, our motives are no longer mixed, but rather unmixed and base.

Socrates not only embodies the ideal of following the argument, of sacrificing a treasured opinion on the altar of consistency. He also points to a transcendent object, wisdom, or the Good, or whatever it is that grabs his attention in the doorway of Agathon’s symposium. He points this way by his neglect of wealth, family, and city. He converts Adeimantus and Glaucon, not with a promise of justice combined with social respectability, but with the promise of a realm of light beyond the shadows of the cave.

A thorny ambiguity lies in the concept of reasonableness. Are ideals reasonable? Is the pursuit of the transcendent to the neglect of all else reasonable? To follow reason means to follow the argument, yes, but does it also mean to accept things as they are, to follow convention? I suspect that Marks slips a bit into the latter danger. Reasonableness counsels us to accept things as they are, and here I have no argument. But to counsel acceptance without also appealing to the imagination is a counsel of despair. We also need to imagine grand possibilities for change. We need to speak the truth not only in light of circumstances but also in light of the wider scope of human possibility.

Consider a thinker that Marks and I both admire, Abraham Lincoln. His speeches embody the virtue of reasonableness. But the abolition of slavery, which he held as his object and which, in one view, he carried out ruthlessly, was hardly a reasonable goal. To be reasonable in the way his speeches suggest means simply to accept that half the country lives a life steeped to its eyeballs in brutal injustice. Such a pragmatic acceptance seemed preeminently reasonable, but now it shocks the conscience.

We may believe that Lincoln was truly reasonable and abolished slavery only when forced by necessity. Or we may believe that the prophetic abolitionists, wild-eyed crazies intoxicated with impracticable ideals, shaped his thought and actions. Certainly it is hard to imagine that Lincoln could have lived, and won, and governed without them.

The neglect of ideals is a problem for Marks’s project. But the book is invaluable all the same. Emotionally volatile characters like myself are easily tossed on the storms of manufactured drama. I have always sought out a colleague or two who counsel reason. Such colleagues are ports in the storm; they remind me that storms are not new and that attempting an honest conversation is always worthwhile. In his book, Marks volunteers himself as that colleague, and the result is a refreshing reminder of the promise and the possibility of real conversation.

Zena Hitz is a tutor at St. John’s College and the author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life.

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