click here to jump to start of article
  • Torah Reading: Naso
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Professors Who See No Evil

Professors Who See No Evil

Most college students are being taught that there is no truth, removing debate from the modern campus. The result? Intolerance and closed-mindedness.

by John Leo

A Zogby International poll of college seniors came up with a fascination finding. Almost all of the 401 randomly selected students around the country -- 97 perfect -- said their college studies had prepared them to behave ethically in their future work lives. So far, so good. But 73 percent of the students said that when their professors taught about ethical issues, the usual message was that uniform standards of right and wrong don't exist ("what is right and wrong depends on differences in individual values and cultural diversity"). It's not news that today's campuses are drenched in moral relativism. But we are allowed to be surprised that college students report they are being well prepared ethically by teachers who tell them, in effect, that there are no real ethical standards, so anything goes.

Stephen Balch of the National Association of Scholars, who commissioned the survey, says the results show the dominance on campuses of postmodern thought, including the belief that objective standards are a sham perpetrated by the powerful to serve their own interests.

Some students were not willing to say that the Nazis were wrong, since no individual can challenge the moral worldview of another.

Because of cost constraints, the survey did not ask what the students think of their no-standards professors. Chances are though, that a large percentage of students would score high on moral relativism too, given the atmosphere at colleges today. Several years ago, a college professor in upstate New York reported that 10 percent to 20 percent of his students could not bring themselves to criticize the Nazi extermination of Europe's Jews. Some students expressed personal distaste for what the Nazis did. But they were not willing to say that the Nazis were wrong, since no culture can be judged from the outside and no individual can challenge the moral worldview of another. College students are rarely taught this directly, but they absorb it as part of the multiculturally tolerant, nonjudgmental campus culture. Deferring to the moral compass of mass murderers is a drastic step, even for collegians steeped in moral relativism. But many were willing to do so at a non-elite campus years ago, and since postmodernism is far stronger today in the schools, presumably more would be willing now.

What's truth?

Postmodernists see individuals as products of a specific culture who must guard against the temptation to inflate their own norms into universal standards and dress up their own interests as objectivity. To claim knowledge as universal truth is impossible. There is no truth, just narratives and stories that "work" for particular communities. This belief has turned the study of history on campus into politically empowering, feel-good exercises and provided intellectual justification for the politicization of all studies on campus.

If all beliefs are equally valid, there is nothing to debate. Nothing separates a personal "truth" from self-delusion.

Since "truth" is an act of community empowerment, truth is whatever tribe or the individual says it is. This is why debate and argument have disappeared from the modern campus -- to criticize anyone's ideas is a personal assault, like attacking someone for liking chocolate ice cream. This notion that disagreement is an assault helps explain the venomous treatment of dissenters on campus -- canceled speakers, stolen newspapers, ripped-down posters, implausible violations of hate-speech rules, and many other hallmarks of the modern campus.

If all beliefs are equally valid, there is nothing to debate. Nothing separates a personal "truth" from self-delusion. Cultures can't be criticized for what most of us consider horrendous acts, like the recent sanctioned gang rape in Pakistan of an 18-year-old girl as punishment for her brother's flirting with a woman of high status. Journalist Andrew Sullivan saw an opening to taunt postmodern guru Stanley Fish about this case. Is Fish at least willing to come out against gang rape as punishment? Yes, he says, he is.

If fact, postmodernists are not consistent about their dogma that other cultures are not to be criticized. Particularly on issues of race and gender, postmodernists can be as judgmental as everyone else -- especially when discussions turn to genital mutilation, the jailing or execution of homosexuals, or the Taliban practice of beating women on the street. Similarly, the deeply held belief that all cultures are valid on their own terms is rarely applied to the United States. Perhaps inevitably, however, we have heard a lot of postmodern defenses of the validity of terrorist attacks on the West.

Do parents know what they are paying for when they ship their sons and daughters off to Postmodern U.? Probably not. But the notion that truth is simply a personal preference is often part of what they are buying. NAS said this of its poll: If students leave college convinced that ethical standards are simply a matter of individual choice, they are less likely to be reliably ethical in their subsequent careers. This seems like understatement. The nation is currently outraged about the moral shenanigans of the tycoon class, but it's hard to see how things will improve if we teach the next generation that standards don't exist and moral debate is a personal violation and a sham.

This article originally appeared in US News and World Report.

September 28, 2002

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Anonymous, July 31, 2009 10:33 PM

thanks, Mr. Limbaugh

The author is stubbornly stuck in the past. Much like those who keep referring to the "good old days", this author is unwilling to accept the concept of "evolution of thought." What was correct/ethical/acceptable 1000 years ago is different today, and will be different yet in another 1000 years. The notion that relativism and constructive debates/conversations are mutually exclusive is absurd. People can still argue and debate their ideas, even if they are open minded to the idea that the other person's view can be valid too -- even if contradictory. That is called being intelligent, enlightened, open-minded, etc. Absolutist thinking is ungodly because you are convincing yourself (and preaching to others) that your way is the only way. What is it exactly that makes someone more correct than the person next to them who believes in something very different or even opposite??? To belittle, discourage, and even dismiss free thinking and the notion of "what if?" is insulting and embarrassing. Much like technology and medicine, cultural standars and values are evolving every day. New discoveries are being made, and old theories are modified or sometimes proven wrong and outdated. That is why the scientific community at large dubs the most agreed-upon ideas "Theories" rather than facts or laws. Even Newton's Law is being challenged today with Quantum Physics and other studies. Not to stray too far from the subject, I believe it is very important to keep an open mind. I use the word "believe" because my view is relative, and the author of this article would obviously diagree with me, perpetuating the idea of one constant, unchanging, unevolving truth. Good luck with that.

(2) Larry May, September 30, 2002 12:00 AM

You have told the truth. How refreshing!

John Leo's comments summarize an academic saga that has been burning out of control since the mid-1960's. It has a number of sources, but perhaps the most important is the fact-value dichotome that arose from the behavioralist approach to the social sciences. The "behavioralists" taught that facts could be separated from values. Taking this to its logical (sic) conclusion, one could not pass judgment on differeing points of view.
Everything is relative. A colleague of mine (while teaching in higher academe) called this the authoritarian deviation of liberalism: every point of view should be allowed and has merit except that point of view that posits that not all points of view have merit and are a waste of time.

If there is no truth, then what are academics involved in? The pursuit of

In other words, there is the commitment to principle, and there is the commitment to relativism. Judaism is a commitment to principle. There are standards in life...and there is an ultimate purpose to life.

Now the students of the sixties are the teachers and journalists of today. And look at the nonsense they feed our children. Very sad.

(1) Benjamin, September 30, 2002 12:00 AM

Every been on a college campus?

I'm sorry, but the author of this article has apparently never been on a college campus or sat in on a college course. I went to an "elitist" college and have plenty of "elitist" friends from around the country. None of us would ever say 'anything goes'.

To say that a person's values influence his perception of truth is wholly different from saying that more than one thing is true. Dead is dead, no matter what one's opinion on the issue. However, whether Dead is bad or good is open to debate. The assassin wanted the fellow killed, the family didn't. So now, the question is whether the assassin's motives are better than the value of the man's life. It's tough. Not all decisions are easy. On this issue I might say things are for the best in the big picture or long run etc. though they are a tragedy on the personal level. For this, good and bad are inappropriate judgements. The Holocaust helped to bring about Israel, a good thing, but that doesn't make the Holocaust a positive or desired event. A serious illness, death, or accident might cause one to look inward to rexamine his life, but that shouldn't cause us to label the illness as 'good', only as good for us in the long run.

And returning to my first point: There is such huge debate of values on college campuses and among colleges that I would hardly hold that "anything goes" is a consensus. When have you known academics to agree about anything?

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment