Is Our Students Learning?

Over at Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse calls attention to the curious statement by James O’Keefe, he of Mary Landrieu’s phones and ACORN-pimping infamy, about why he chose to become a conservative while a philosophy major at Rutgers University: his fellow students, influenced by the liberal professoriate, were “drowned in relativism, concepts of distributive justice and redistribution of wealth.”

Harry is concerned about O’Keefe’s mischaracterization of the intellectual alignment of scholarly philosophy. I’m concerned about something else. Let’s assume this was a much looser sense of “relativism”, one that I often see coming from cultural conservatives: an argument that liberal, secular culture doesn’t have any firm or fixed moral commitments, doesn’t believe in ethical commitments which transcend circumstance. Leave aside whether that’s true or not or even whether there’s a good case to be made that some ethical commitments should resist “relativism” in this sense.

My question is this: if that’s what O’Keefe (or similarly minded cultural conservatives) believes, why isn’t his first political calling to demonstrate non-relativistic ethical commitments? Such as, for example, scrupulous regard for intellectually rigorous processes of research and investigation. Honesty and transparency seem like good things to add to the list. Generally obeying the laws of a democratic society seems like it might be a non-relativistic ethical commitment.

So in that spirit, let’s suppose you have the non-relativistic ethics that your liberal peers scorn and you hear that a United States Senator reputedly is ignoring constituent feedback received by telephone about health care. You think this is a problem and should be looked into. Do you:

1) Investigate whether offices of Senators and Representatives typically take large amounts of telephone input from constituents about pending legislation, and what variations there are in practices from office to office?
2) Investigate the overall quality of constituent services in Congress, so you have a good sense of what the baseline expectation is?
3) Ask direct questions of Senator Mary Landrieu’s staffers, her colleagues in the Senate and any other sources in order to try and determine whether her office’s responses are notably divergent from general trends?


1) Dress up as telephone repairmen and otherwise falsely represent yourselves in an attempt to infiltrate her office in violation of federal law with an as-yet unclear understanding of how this would provide better non-relativist information about the above questions?

That’s what I worry about when I hear that there are too many “relativists” around: that the people complaining the most about that supposed surplus are the most supremely relativistic folks you might ever imagine encountering.

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3 Responses to Is Our Students Learning?

  1. AndrewSshi says:

    I suspect that complaints about “moral relativism” are, at this point, something of a beacon that keeps sending out a signal long after its makers have passed away. It’s the same as when as late as the late 1990s, people would talk about prisoners having “color TVs” in talk of how prisoners get coddled: the age in which color TVs were a luxury had long since passed, but the mummified rhetoric just continued.

    A lot of movement conservatism seems to have fallen into this habit of “zombie rhetoric.” President proposes subsidizing people’s health insurance? Cry “socialized medicine!” President proposes some infrastructure improvements and money to help the states in the worst recession in 70 years? Cry “socialism!”

    It’s rhetoric that’s completely out of balance with what’s actually happening, which is why I am amazed that *anyone* not a full-bore committed Republican votes for anyone in the party.

  2. Doug says:

    “It’s ok if you’re a Republican” is a non-relativistic commitment, isn’t it?

  3. anthgrad says:

    It is strange, but when I read your blurb and somehow completely glazed over the actual words put down, I immediately thought that he was not talking about moral relativism in particular but the general intellectual laziness of the so called ‘left’, in academia in general.

    In my grad school experience we are often assigned contemporary anthropological papers that are all very careful to describe the world/context of study as a sort of Rabinow-esque ‘overdetermined’ assemblage, something that is incredibly complex, processual, manifests the local and global and so on, but then inevitably goes onto make some sort of fairly standard point (couched in esoteric language for the most part) that capitalism hurts certain people, particular governments’ ‘turn’ to neoliberalism is screwing so and so or that women still have the short end of the stick etc. While I do not necessarily disagree with any of these example arguments, the fact is scholars tend to make them thousands of times over simply shuffling the (unnecessarily convoluted) terms around a bit to produce a new paper. We are then given them in class and then essentially everyone in the class agrees with their point and goes about discussing it, or at least trying to, in that same absurdly obtuse language. When there are students who may have a more ‘conservative’ viewpoint, they tend to be the most silenced members of the class. The first two or three papers you get from the professor you might feel that ‘these sorts’ of articles are just the first batch and then we are going to get some ‘middle of the road’ or ‘conservative’ anthropological articles, but in the end, you realize they are not coming at all. Maybe its just our discipline, I am not sure.

    Anyways, perhaps this is just another grad-student existential crisis but it really makes me question the whole show sometimes. Apologies for this rant, I know it actually has little to do with what this certain, apparently ridiculous Mr. O’Keefe said, but for some reason it set me off.

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