The intellectual climate in the typical university today is an odd mix of skepticism and dogmatism, moral permissiveness and moral indignation. Truth is seen as relative. This does not mean, however, that any truth claims will be tolerated. Quite the contrary. Today’s academic relativism hinges on some political assumptions that are not relativistic at all.
Students will likely be taught that all philosophies and ideologies are equally valid — except for those that claim to be true. All ideas are to be tolerated — except for those that disagree with these assumptions. No culture is superior or inferior to any other culture — except that Western culture is bad and American culture is the worst. All religions are essentially the same and are equally valid paths to transcendence — except Christianity, which is bad.
Students will be taught that morality is just a matter of personal preference, that categories such as “good” and “evil” are merely cultural labels. Sexual permissiveness is taken for granted. But those who believe sex is reserved for marriage are bad. Those who believe homosexuality is immoral and unnatural are evil. Abortion is acceptable. Those who oppose abortion are evil. Everyone has the right to his or her own opinions. But Republicans are evil. And conservative Christians are monsters.
All of this seems contradictory. Relativists seem inconsistent with their own relativism. A true relativist, one would think, would be open to all truth claims (including those of Christianity), all moral positions (including biblical values), all cultures (including American culture), and all religions (including Christianity).
Of course, instead of believing that all truths, moralities, and cultures are equally valid, a relativist could also hold that they are all invalid. This may be more common in the academic world. But that does not explain why the same people who are this skeptical nevertheless tend to embrace with uncritical acceptance certain truth claims (like evolution and global warming), moral positions (being pro-abortion and pro-gay rights), cultures (“marginalized” ethnic groups), and religions (Westernized Eastern mysticism).
There are actually different kinds of relativism on college campuses today. According to the classical mindset that gave us most of the great books and the great ideas of our civilization — which includes Christianity — there are many kinds of things that are objectively true and many ways to discover what they are. Reason gives us access to some kinds of truth. Revelation gives us access to religious and moral truth. Empirical observation and the scientific method can help us learn about the truths of nature. Even beauty, though it has a subjective element, is an objective quality, a function of its aesthetic form. Classic thinkers agreed that we might never fully understand the truth, that our human faculties have their limits, but that, theoretically at least, truth is out there (to borrow a phrase from The X-Files) and, to some measure at least, it can be discovered.
The modernist revolution, the “Age of Reason” that began with the Enlightenment and culminated in the mid-twentieth century, represented a great narrowing of the mind. To modernists, scientific knowledge is the only knowledge. Anything that cannot be empirically observed and scientifically analyzed does not count as knowledge. So much for reason, revelation, and aesthetics.
On college campuses today, it is possible to still find scholars of a classical bent, old-school teachers and researchers who still have a grasp of the wide world of truth. One can also still find modernists. They believe in facts, scientific and even historical, though they are relativists when it comes to interpretation of those facts and to larger issues of philosophy, ethics, and religion.
But now we also have a new kind of relativist. Postmodernists are reacting against the modernists in rejecting all kinds of objectivity, including that of science. They maintain, against both classical and modernist assumptions, that truth is not a discovery at all. Rather, truth is a construction.
Some say, along with modernist relativists, that truth is a personal construction, that we choose what we want to believe to give our lives a particular meaning or significance. Notice that belief becomes a function no longer of the intellect but of the will. And since truth is personal — “my truth,” “your truth” — an attempt to persuade someone is interpreted as a personal attack. To say that my religious, moral, or any other kind of belief is wrong is another way of saying that there is something wrong with me. This is why so much discourse today is defensive and angry. And it is why so many people resist getting into serious conversations.
Other postmodernists take relativism another step further. It isn’t just that all beliefs and truth-claims are individual constructions. They are cultural constructions. Someone has made up a belief for you and has been conditioning you to accept it. Cultures do that to enforce power. That is to say, the groups in power promote certain ideas in order to control and dominate those who believe them.
In this theory, men oppress women, white people oppress other races, the rich oppress the poor, heterosexuals oppress homosexuals, and humans oppress animals. All of culture, all of the arts and sciences, laws and civilizations, morality and religion are reduced to the oppressive imposition of power. Christianity becomes just another way to control people and keep them in line so they don’t overthrow the status quo. Sexual morality is just a patriarchal society’s attempt to force a woman into being a man’s property in marriage. America’s constitutional system controls its citizens by making them think they are free while actually enthralling them to a capitalist economy.
In the university, professors employ what they call a “hermeneutics of suspicion” to cast doubt and infer a sinister power motive in whatever they are studying. In the classroom, part of their task is to liberate their students from the stifling and oppressive belief systems imposed upon them by their parents.
Education becomes “deconstructing” these harmful cultural constructions and then “constructing” alternatives that “empower” the individual or the oppressed group to which he belongs. A whole scholarly industry has grown up around these claims.
For example, an “Afro-centric” approach to history arose, maintaining that Western civilization did not originate with the Greeks, as has traditionally been thought. Rather, Africa is the actual cradle of civilization. Alexandria in Egypt, with its great library and academies, is the true origin of learning, not Athens, which simply plundered the ideas of the African sages.
Then a classical — and classicist — historian pointed out that Alexandria was founded by the Greco-Macedonian Alexander the Great. Alexander was tutored by Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle could not have stolen their ideas from Alexandria, since it didn’t exist until Alexander built it.
You are missing the point, the classical historian was told, in effect. You are quibbling over mere facts. Afro-centric history exists to empower African-Americans. In denying their right to their own construction of history, you are being racist and continuing the pattern of Western scholarship exercising imperialism over marginalized groups.
Another example can be seen in the rise of feminist history, which teaches that European tribes lived peacefully in a matriarchal society, ruled by women and inspired by worship of the goddess. Then came the patriarchal invaders, with their warfare, hierarchies, and male gods. Ever since then, Western civilization has been plagued by the evils of patriarchy. Women, though, can be empowered by rebelling against this system and recovering the goddess within.
Again, classicist scholars have shown that there is no evidence of any such invasion and that matriarchal societies with goddesses often treat women worse than anyone (since they often value women solely for their fertility). Not surprisingly, this is said to miss the point, which is not actual history but empowering women today.
There is some evidence that academia may be starting to react against this kind of relativism. A few years ago, a professor created something of a stir when she wrote about a discussion she had with her students about Adolf Hitler. She was shocked when they responded, “Who are we to judge?” “What he did was right for him” and “That was his culture.” Surely, she thought, when students cannot even see what was wrong with Hitler, relativism has gone too far.
Some of the political causes are running into contradictions. The impulse is to defend radical jihadists as a marginalized, disempowered minority group victimized by Western imperialism. But how they treat women, homosexuals, and innocent bystanders is giving some people on campus pause.
All truth is not really a construction, but those who believe that it is are certainly guilty of constructing truths that, despite their “plausibility,” collapse when anyone looks at them closely. Everything cannot be reduced to the imposition of oppressive power, but those who believe it tend to impose their oppressive power on others. This poisons the academic climate, as many in academia are starting to realize.
Relativism represents the death of the intellect and the destruction of education. Christians, by contrast, have a rock-solid foundation for learning. It may be up to Christians to bring university education back from its collapse.