I stumbled upon this book in a Goodreads review for another book on my shelf, Another Sort of Learning by James V. Schall. The reviewer commented that “This book in union with Another Sort of Learning would be a powerful combination in keeping young adults from being thoroughly swiped up by the ideological ‘education’ which the youths are being initiated into via most college campuses today.” I am usually wary of broad statements that dismiss the value of the university, but the longer I am at one, the more I realize that there are some things that just don’t sit well with me. Probably because I’m isolated from quite a lot of the ideological battles thanks to my position in the engineering department. It was only through an aggressive and politically militant student union and a lecture on micro-aggressions at a TA conference that I realized how much more widespread such thought is in the university.
This book is written by a series of Catholic authors with the intent of giving a primer on the underlying ideologies of the university that are either blatantly promoted or more insidiously advanced as common sense and invisible assumptions. This isn’t necessarily a political book, and it doesn’t come off as one; but in Chestertonian fashion, it pokes holes in the popular fads of the day, and resists the “spirit of the age.” Each essay is dedicated to on of fourteen ideologies defined as follows:
Sentimentalism: an upbeat overemphasis on the inherent goodness of mankind that judges what is good or evil according to how well it accords with our feelings of people we want to impress.
Relativism: the assertion that truths, especially moral truths, have no validity of the “values” treasured by the person or society that asserts them.
Hedonism: the belief that the pursuit of pleasure– intellectual, emotional, or physical– and the avoidance of suffering ought to guide human decisions.
Progressivism: aka “chronological snobbery” confuses “new” with “true.” It also confuses facts with values, by using a factual, chronological term to carry a value meaning. Hence, something “modern”, “contemporary”, or “current” is “truer”, “better”, or “more reliable.”
Multiculturalism: an anti-Western ideology that urges us to view the achievements of Judaeo-Christian civilization with a jaundiced eye and to overlook the flaws in other civilizations, in order to redress the results of past injustices. It is the intellectual equivalent of affirmative action quotas.
Anti-Catholocism: the belief on the part of other Christians that the Catholic Church has a false gospel, is a force for evil in this world, or (as some say) the “Whore of Babylon” leading people away from the true, “biblical” form of the Christian faith.
Utilitarianism: the ethical theory that pleasure is the greatest good, suffering the greatest evil. Therefore, our actions must be guided by calculating what will bring the most pleasure or the least suffering to the largest number, regardless of other considerations.
Consumerism: the contemporary face of avarice, which drives individuals to define themselves and judge their values in terms of material acquisition and the social status that it confers
Cynicism: an intellectual stance that seeks to debunk the motives of other people and “expose” commonly treasured ideals– generally for the sake of making the cynic feel superior to others, or freeing him from the necessity of attaining difficult virtues.
Feminism: an ideological movement that sees women in families as akin to exploited workers in industrial factories: as a “domestic proletariat” that must engage in class struggle within the family rather than the workplace.
Scientism: simply an exaggerated belief in science, it claims that the methods of modern natural sciences provide our only access to the world and give the only kind of “truth.”
Americanism: the tendency to put conformity with American culture and politics before the teachings of the universal Church.
Marxism: a philosophical system that asserts that the “real” explanation of most things that happen in society rests in the unequal relationships of money and/or power, which are inherently unjust and should be remedied by the use of force– either through a violent revolution that will impose equality, or through organizing society’s “have-nots” to take political power and seize what is “rightly” theirs by means of taxation and regulation.
Modernism: the theological tendency that alters or even rejects unchanging Catholic truths given to us by divine revelation, to adapt the Faith to the perceived needs and preferences of modern man.
The splitting of modern though into distinct ideologies called to mind Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. While you’ll find them all mashed together in the news and social media, it takes a keen mind to trace their pedigrees and pin down their main claims.
I was familiar with a few of the authors. I have read Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and some of the names like Peter Kreeft and Mark Shea are very familiar. I am also acquainted with many of the authors they cite, including G. K. Chesterton, one of my favorite writers, and John Henry Newman whose Idea of a University I have read (and even managed to quote in my general exam last month!).
I found it very empowering to find authors with views and concerns regarding that modern age that I agree with. I thought these ideas had died with C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton, but they are still alive and well. You just won’t find them publicized very well in the modern ideological climate. The book’s introduction states:
None of these ideologies is completely, 100 percent wrong. If they were utter, obvious nonsense, then nobody would be taken in by them. Instead, every heresy amounts to a tiny piece of the truth, surgically removed from the rest of reality and grown in a test tube into a giant thumb, or ear, or tongue. When you try to reattach it to the body, it causes all sorts of problems because it throws everything out of balance. That’s what ideologies do, with their fierce, fanatical focus. They narrow our vision, whip up our emotions, and tempt us to throw aside common sense, faith, and finally even logic. They are like intellectual drugs, and, yes, they can be addictive. This book is meant to save you the trouble of ending up in rehab.
There are two analyses in particular that I found very compelling. First, the idea of progressivism as “the aristocracy of the living.” Many of today’s assumptions go unchallenged and are taken at face value. Old stuff is, at best, boring, at worst barbaric. Kreeft states “progressivists try to tell truth with a clock instead of an argument.” “Modern man” has outgrown the superstitions of religion, and his impressive accomplishments in science and technology speak for themselves. This isn’t a “liberal” or democrat argument; it’s the air we breath, it’s just assumed. I found particularly striking his conclusion that
This is actually a mild form of possession. For those who have become possessed by a demon, an evil spirit, an alien, another spirit than their own true self, have lost not only their own identity but even the knowledge that there is a distinction between themselves and their possessing spirit. They are so deeply self-deluded that they sincerely believe that the thoughts emanating from their mind come from within, not from without. This is as true of possession by the Zeitgeist as it is of possession by a demon.
The second essay that added a lot of clarity to current ideologies was Tucker’s on Marxism and class warfare. Tucker asserts that many of the oppressed groups of the day– feminists, multiculturalists, and LGBT groups, got a lot of their ideas and methods from Marx. The juxtaposition of the victims and the oppressors is Marx’s contribution to today’s dialogue. This zero-sum game, this constant striving for power, also removes the necessity of developing clear arguments, because those who disagree are “trapped in the logic of a privileged class”:
As a member of the ruling class who is wedded to bourgeois ways of thinking, Böhm-Bawerk is just not capable of thinking the right away about these things. Because he thinks like a businessman, his mind is impervious to the truth—so there is no point in arguing with him. Instead, you should simply gain power, and then arrest him.
This little book was a pleasure to read, and I added a lot of the books they recommend at the end of each chapter to my reading list. I also couldn’t agree more with the advice given at the conclusion of the book:
So here’s my message to students who want to make a difference in the world someday: Sign up for hard-core, serious courses and for the love of God do the reading.
So many people are unaware of the multiplicity of ideas out there, that we get stuck believing whatever those around us believe. Most people today are like sheep, following whatever happens to be entertaining or scandalous on their Facebook feed. Get out there and challenge your beliefs, read something that makes you think.