Rejecting Truth, Justice, and the American Way

By now, everyone knows that the modern American post-truth university is also post-justice and post-American. At Power Line, Steven Hayward shows how blatantly the university racket operates these days by highlighting a recent headline: “Student gets into Stanford after writing #BlackLivesMatter on application 100 times.” That was in fact the perfect admissions essay:

Naturally he was admitted. The acceptance letter praised his “passion, determination, accomplishments, and heart,” and how he’d be a “fantastic match” for Stanford.

And he evidently was a match for Stanford; he has graduated and is now at large.

Over at the Gatestone Institute, Daniel Greenfield makes it clear that this racket has been in development for a long, long time:

Columbia University, whose Hamas occupation fills the front pages of every newspaper in the country while driving Jewish students off campus, has changed little in some ways. A hundred years ago, Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler was laboring to keep Jewish students out while celebrating Mussolini’s fascism. Butler’s admiration for fascism was common among university presidents, leaders of society and even in the FDR administration.

But Columbia was not always like this. It had once taught truth and justice—and what’s more important, it contributed to the American founding.

When Alexander Hamilton attended Columbia (it was called King’s College in those days), he, like the other founders, was taught the philosophy that became the philosophy of the American founders. James Madison learned it at Princeton, and Thomas Jefferson at William and Mary.

The philosophy the founders learned at Columbia, Princeton, William and Mary, and elsewhere had only recently arrived on these shores. It came from Scotland. Here is how I stated it in my book Common Sense Nation:

Jefferson was the architect of the Declaration of Independence, Madison was the architect of the Constitution, and Hamilton was the architect of The Federalist Papers. If we want to understand their thinking, we need to start with the fact that the Scottish Enlightenment provided their teachers.

Jefferson’s mentor was William Small. Small was a powerful exponent of the Scottish Enlightenment’s philosophy of common sense, and he was by far the most brilliant member of the faculty at The College of William and Mary. He came to America to teach only from 1758 to 1764—at precisely the right time to guide Jefferson’s studies there. Small left America when he did in response to an urgent request from James Watt. Watt wanted his help with the development of something called the steam engine.

Madison’s mentor, John Witherspoon, was the president of The College of New Jersey (today’s Princeton University). Witherspoon’s own education can help us see just how close the founders were to the Scottish Enlightenment. Before coming to America, Witherspoon had studied with Adam Smith and Thomas Reid, two of the greatest thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Hamilton’s tutor at King’s was Robert Harpur, also a Scot and a product of the Scottish Enlightenment. He had studied at Glasgow before coming to America.

American institutions of higher education shaped the American founding fundamentally (though in those days they were called colleges, not universities), and the Scottish Enlightenment’s influence in American education continued long after the founding era. Here is James Foster in his admirable book Scottish Philosophy in America:

For a hundred years or more, Scottish philosophers were both taught and emulated by professors at Princeton, Harvard and Yale, as well as newly founded colleges stretching from Rhode Island to Texas.

A distinguished American historian, Allen Guelzo, made that point in this way in his truly great lecture series, “The American Mind”:

Before the Civil War, every major [American] collegiate intellectual was a disciple of Scottish common sense realism.

By teaching the philosophy of common-sense realism, American colleges once taught students to think like the American founders, to think like Americans.  

The core idea of common-sense realism is that there are self-evident truths and that self-evident truths are known to be true by means of common sense; common sense enables us to know what is self-evidently true. Read the Founders, and you will find them constantly referring to self-evident truths. They got their understanding of self-evident truth from the Scottish Enlightenment, especially from Thomas Reid. His Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense was published in 1764, just in time to shape the founders’ thinking.

What happened to American institutions of higher education? Briefly, they abandoned the philosophy of common-sense realism. Then, perhaps inevitably, they abandoned common sense. Eventually, they became the enemies of common sense. Once universities began dedicating themselves to beating the common sense out of their students, the corruption of higher education in America was very far advanced indeed.

Woodrow Wilson, as the president of Princeton, was a key figure in this transformation of American higher education. Later, from the White House, he did much to advance the transformation of the American republic into the progressive deep state we have now. If the progressives ever construct their own Mt. Rushmore, George Washington’s first position should be bestowed on Woodrow Wilson.

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