Book Review

Enough Already: The University Does Not Need More Liberalism

sciencea review by Christopher Shannon

Science, Democracy, and the American University
by Andrew Jewett
413 pages. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Universities have reason to be ashamed of having created, within the most liberal of all industrialized societies of the North Atlantic West, an all-too-common space in which ideas identified as liberal have enjoyed nearly unchallenged de facto privilege. During the 1960s and 1970s, certain segments of our leading colleges and universities developed a critical distance from these ideas, yet since the 1980s, university scholars have largely returned to the liberal drift of science and scholarship inherited from the formative period of the modern research university in the United States. Anyone who questions this return is accused of being a fascist reactionary, a religious zealot, or a racist/sexist/homophobe.  At issue is whether liberalism can continue to wave the banner of tolerance and pluralism while in effect claiming for itself the status as gatekeeper of academic discourse and last best hope for mankind. 

These thoughts came to me while reading Andrew Jewett’s Science, Democracy, and the American University:  From the Civil War to the Cold War.  It is a frustrating book. At first glance, it is a model monograph, reflecting an encyclopedic coverage of the primary and secondary material relating to its topic.  At this level, the book will likely become a staple of orals reading lists for graduate students studying twentieth century U.S. intellectual history.  Frustration sets in quickly, however, when one tries to read the book beyond this level.  Jewett’s purported contribution to the field lies in his claim to recovering and “reconstructing a forgotten tradition of thinking about the democratic possibilities of modern science” (8).  This tradition of thinkers, which Jewett labels “scientific democracy,” held that modern science contained within itself the ethical resources for promoting a culture of democracy.  In emphasizing the ethical component of modern science, Jewett directly takes on the New Left historiography of corporate liberalism, in which science, including the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, appears as a servant of power, “providing the knowledge base for rationalized state administration or industrial production” (5).  More specifically, Jewett rejects the New Left’s dismissal of John Dewey and the pragmatist tradition as promoters of instrumental, technical reason at the expense of ethical reflection. In Jewett’s reading, “scientific democracy resembles the missionary enterprise more than an engineering project because it focused so heavily on transforming beliefs and values and viewed science as a species of ethical practice rather than an expression of instrumental reason” (13). All of this is persuasive as far as it goes, it simply does not go very far with respect to the historiographical and philosophical issues that Jewett raises.

First, the historiography. Jewett acknowledges the rehabilitation of John Dewey in post-New Left scholarship, most notably in the work of Robert Westbrook. He claims that he seeks to revise Westbrook’s portrayal of Dewey as the “lone wolf” of scientific democracy by fleshing out the broader tradition across a range of thinkers.  The assertion that outside of Westbrook’s account of Dewey historians continue to present the intellectual life of Dewey’s time as a wasteland of instrumental reason does not hold up to even a cursory reading of the works that dominated intellectual history for the last twenty-five years.  James Kloppenberg, Daniel Rodgers, Thomas Haskell and David Hollinger long ago lead a revolt against the New Left’s Frankfurt School-inspired critique of liberalism, rendering a new consensus on the via media of progressive liberalism/social democracy.  Jewett’s book is another brick in this wall, but hardly a challenge to historiographical orthodoxy.

Some of this problem might be traced to Jewett’s methodology.  In a revealing footnote, he explains that he engaged in a close reading of sources by first “[a]ttempting to bracket what historians had written about well-known primary texts,” then “por[ing] over them myself to develop my own interpretations.” Only after this did he “go back to the existing secondary literature to see where [he] could credit other historians with sharing the same insights, or at least addressing the same topics” (15).  As one of the scholars Jewett cites, I can say that his sola scriptura approach results in a kind of tunnel vision that blinds him to any argument that does not either support his own or provide some grist for the mill of his assault on corporate liberal historiography. In identifying Franz Boas as a scientific democrat, he cites my Conspicuous Criticism without ever acknowledging my critique of the inherent contradictions that prevented Boasian anthropology from sustaining, much less fostering, the idea of community suggested by the notion of culture as a pattern of values, a whole way of life.  The problem with scientific democracy is not that it is silent as to ends, but that it sees ends as chosen rather than given, the product of human desire rather than human nature.  The pragmatic standard of “usefulness” has of course always been guided by the cultural conventions of a given moment, but it has also always proudly set itself against conventional thinking, thus consigning its own judgments to the dustbin of fleeting cultural contingency.  No wonder that when faced with the challenge of war and totalitarianism, most Americans (including intellectuals) failed to find pragmatic scientific democracy morally compelling.

I suspect that Professor Jewett and I will never see eye-to-eye on the virtues of pragmatism. I would hope, however, that we could agree on what pragmatism (and by extension scientific democracy) is and is not.  Pragmatism is not, by any conventional philosophical definition, a “virtue ethics” for it denies the possibility of a substantive account of the good; Jewett seems to conflate a virtuous adherence to procedural norms with the pursuit of virtue itself (23). For Jewett to wade responsibly into these philosophical waters, he could be expected to show at least some passing acquaintance with the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, which touches on so many aspects of the philosophical issues he raises in his book.  In our time, to write a history of ethical thought apart from MacIntyre is like writing a history of capitalism without engaging Marx. In Jewett’s text, virtue talk ultimately functions merely as a sentimental marker of humanist authenticity, which does not help us very much in assessing the intellectual merits of scientific democracy.

It is on this level that the book’s hagiographical tone obscures more than it clarifies. Jewett acknowledges certain failings and weaknesses on the part of particular promoters of scientific democracy, yet ultimately blames the failure of the tradition to capture the moral imagination of the country on the twin external forces of cultural conservatism and business interests (225-27). The tradition of scientific democracy could not escape common human weaknesses, yet it possessed, and still possesses, unique intellectual strengths.  If scientific democrats in the past failed to persuade the mass of Americas to accept their moral authority, scientific democrats present and future “simply need to take additional care to embed the scientific enterprise in adequate frameworks of social value” (368).  The story of twentieth century American intellectual life is, however, very much the story of the failure to articulate frameworks of social value immune from the very type of critical, skeptical analysis that led Jewett’s scientific democrats to reject the “dogmas” of liberal Protestantism in favor of its supposed ethical core.  Yesterday’s ethical core becomes today’s dogma, with constant critical revision progressively thinning out any possible ethical common ground.  Jewett successfully rescues his scientific democrats from the charge of vulgar technocracy, yet the alternative social vision—in one representative instance, E.A. Ross’s ideal of “the most welfare for the least abridgement of liberty”—marks little advance over a figure such as Thomas Hobbes (122).

Jewett convincingly presents his scientific democrats as a kinder, gentler, social scientific version of the classical liberal vision of a society oriented toward individual liberty, but he repeatedly conflates this vision with an older classical conception of the common good and the common life.  Scientific democrats, like so many of their historian sympathizers, confused the social relations of their professional communities with society as such. John Dewey proposed to break down the barriers between school and society by transforming society into a school room; many professional educators remain comfortable with that vision.  Those who find comfort in that vision will find comfort in Jewett’s book.  He tells a tale oft told, but he tells it well.

For those infidels who lack faith in scientific democracy, the book does offer glimpses of roads not taken.  William James’s critique of the “Ph.D. octopus” reads as fresh today as it did over a hundred years ago. His insistence that a philosophy professor should be hired on the basis of  moral character and not simply technical skills sounds refreshingly medieval, and presents a far deeper challenge to contemporary academic practice than anything suggested by the mainstream of scientific democracy.  So too, historians can profit from reflection on Morris R. Cohen’s advice to philosophers:  “Let philosophy resolutely aim to be as scientific as possible, [but] let her not forget her strong kinship with literature.” Cohen realized that the “temperamental preference” inherent in philosophy severely limited the possibility, or even desirability, of a single synthesis unifying the field; facing these facts, Cohen argued that the discipline of philosophy must embrace and support a plurality of truths (103).  A historical profession seemingly addicted to liberalism could learn from Cohen’s example.  It might start by opening up its doors to some of those religious interpretive traditions banished (or never admitted) in the secularizing founding moment of the modern research university.  A profession in which Jewett’s liberal doxology had to share space with those of Presbyterians, Baptists, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists would at least have earned the right to call itself a promoter of diversity—surely a value that scientific democrats would have to affirm.

Christopher Shannon is an associate professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia.  He is the author of two books on the history of American social science, Conspicuous Criticism (1996) and A World Made Safe for Differences (2001).  His most recent book is Bowery to Broadway:  The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (2010).

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Chris, this is the second or third review essay you have written for this blog in which you complain about how the historical profession has closed its doors to those who would dissent from liberal orthodoxy — with one exception, apparently, since everybody around here has left a door wide open for you to keep bringing the same charge.

    And I see you’re on the conference program again this year. Will you be using that time as well to speak out about how voices and views like yours are excluded from academic discourse?

    People around here seem to take you seriously, despite all your protestations to the contrary — or perhaps, I suppose, because of them. So score one for secular liberalism, the profession’s commitment to pluralistic inquiry, and its openness to critique.

  2. “Pragmatism is not, by any conventional philosophical definition, a “virtue ethics” for it denies the possibility of a substantive account of the good . . .”

    And, in this,pragmatism is probably the general orientation most suitable for an academic research institution. Substantive accounts of the good must exclude many perspectives and even dissuade from investigating them.

    There are up-sides and down-sides to that of course.

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