Friday, October 1, 2010

Christine O'Donnell at Oxford: some notes from summer 2001

In the summer of 2001, I was a doctoral student in classics at the University of Oxford, and looking for summer employment. I signed on with a group called the Phoenix Institute to do a tutorial at Oxford on postmodernism and natural law.

This was my second summer with the Phoenix Institute. The Phoenix Institute was a group of Jedi academics; rebels and renegades against the evil empire of politically correct university life. Their summer school at Oxford ran three weeks, and was intended to give intellectual alternatives to the philosophical morass of postmodern moral relativism.

Although we were never an Oxford University course, we drew heavily on the faculties of Oxford and Cambridge for our lectures. The organizers had put together a star-studded cast of lecturers, and partly as a result we drew students from Latin America, the US, and Europe.

My role was to run the tutorials: these were modeled on the Oxford tutorial system, and were designed to give an intense analysis of the lectures, the readings, and the students' papers. The students were broken down into groups of four for a weekly one-hour tutorial with me. The basic text that summer was C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man (1944), his classic case for the importance of natural law in ethics. In addition, the students were assigned 25-50 pages of readings for each of the nearly daily lectures.

I required the papers to be written in disputatio format. This format demands that you furnish the three best reasons against your case before you are allowed to set forth your reasons for your case. So, for example, if you wanted to argue for communism, you needed to give the three best reasons in defense of capitalism before you could make your case for the merits of Marxism. If, on the contrary, you wanted to argue in favor of free markets, you needed to set forth the best three arguments you could find in favor of Marxism before you put forth your case for capitalism.

The purpose of the disputatio format was to enforce intellectual honesty, to enhance critical thinking skills in the writing of papers. The students had to think seriously about the other point of view before setting forth their own. Then and now, I self-identified philosophically as a Thomist and politically as a neoconservative. But as a teacher, I didn't do indoctrination. The point of the tutorials was to help the students learn to think.

The first tutorial was nearly always a something of a shock for the students. Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago put it brilliantly:

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students' reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2+2=4....The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society.(The Closing of the American Mind, 1985)

Exactly. Lewis's The Abolition of Man was a frontal assualt on moral relativism, and the students were not quite sure what to make of it. The opening chapter is a critique of emotivism, a theory of ethics then somewhat in vogue at Oxford under the influence of analytical philosophy. Lewis went after this with some gusto: "It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals...Their heads are no bigger than ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so."

For Lewis it was one of the central problems of relativism that it was normally only directed at other people's values: relativists usually "will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars." After going through some of these values in detail, Lewis wrote: " It will be seen that comfort and security, as known to a suburban street in peace-time, are the ultimate values: those things which can alone produce or spiritualize comfort are mocked. Man lives by bread alone and the ultimate source of bread is the baker's van: peace matters more than honour and can be preserved by jeering at colonels and reading newspapers."

During the summer of 2001, we worked through key aspects of natural law theory from a variety of perspectives. The final exam contained two questions: 1. agree or disagree with the view of natural law expressed in Sophocles' Antigone using a disputatio format; 2. agree or disagree with Thomas Jefferson's quotation from 1782: "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?"--again using a disputatio format.

Christine O'Donnell was a joy to have in the tutorials: intelligent, engaged, dynamic, good with questions and interested in ideas. Her paper on cloning was one of the two best papers written for me that summer. She successfully completed a rigorous, intellectually demanding course that was the equivalent of a course in the humanities at any graduate school at any university. As a result, I was happy to write recommendations for her for future graduate study.

The course we did that summer in Oxford is nearly a decade old, but the basic issues we addressed are eternal. Today, too many of the Republic's leaders have abandoned the natural law tradition of the Declaration of Independence for a murky moral relativism--a relativism that is both destructive of democratic values and philosophically bankrupt. Christine O'Donnell would bring to the US Senate a deepened commitment to the philosophical convictions of the Founding Fathers at a time when the philosophical bankruptcy of too many leaders is mirrored in the economic bankruptcy of the federal government. She would surely add intellectual and philosophical depth to a Senate that at this point in its history badly needs both.
Footnote: as of this morning, lots of people have read this post, but only 6 have looked at the schedule. I do think a look at the schedule is essential to understanding what we were about that summer. Cheers! :)