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Rorty's rebels

Why do parents support anti-parent education?

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

Richard Rorty, who died in 2007, was a major postmodernist philosopher who believed that since objective truth is unknowable, all we can do is pursue pragmatic goals. He was a popular professor at Wellesley, Princeton, the University of Virginia, and Stanford. In an essay titled "Universality and Truth" published in Rorty and His Critics, he argued that because there is no universal truth, all education is indoctrination. In making this case, he candidly admitted his agenda and that of many of his colleagues.

"The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire 'American liberal establishment' is engaged in a conspiracy," Rorty wrote. "The parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students."

Rorty said to parents, "We are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable."

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In his essay, Rorty freely admitted that he sought to dominate students. His, however, was a "benevolent" domination. "I think those students are lucky to find themselves under . . . people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents." Rorty even acknowledged that his approach is little different from the indoctrinators of the Hitler Youth. "I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers," he wrote; "the only difference is that I serve a better cause."

A better cause? It is hard to understand how a relativist could make such a statement. Surely the Nazi teachers thought their cause was better, too. Don't we need a way to say the Nazis were wrong? But for pragmatists like Rorty, those logical questions have no bearing. The end simply justifies the means, and the end is basically whatever the particular pragmatist wants.

Not all university professors are so contemptuous of students, parents, and religious belief, but quite a few share Rorty's attitude. Most students at secular colleges and universities will have to deal with professors like this.

Well-grounded and well-instructed Christians do not need to fear the assaults on their faith. The intellectual attacks are usually not all that difficult to refute. Rorty's are shot through with contradictions, as he is constantly making truth claims and moral judgments even as he argues against them.

But such professors raise other questions: What is the value of an education that rejects knowledge and denies the existence of truth? Why pay money to go to a school that teaches students that there is nothing to learn?

Furthermore, why do parents, students, and taxpayers in general put up with this? It appears that the content of what students are taught is of less importance than loyalty to the football team, the prestige of the institution, and the belief that getting a degree is nothing more than a ticket to economic success.

Comments? Email Ed Veith at gveith@worldmag.com.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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