KENNEDY: Tilting at the Enlightenment

March 10, 2012

Sheila Suess KennedySome people go through life like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.

Then there’s Rick Santorum. He wants to repeal the Enlightenment.

I’ve been mulling over Santorum’s recent attack on higher education—an attack that’s part and parcel of his rejection of so many aspects of modernity: evolution, reproductive autonomy for women, separation of church and state, equality for gays and lesbians. There really isn’t much about the 21st century (or the 19th or 20th, for that matter) that he seems to accept.

I think Santorum’s hostility toward education is real, despite his own MBA and law degrees, and it is at the very heart of his world view (I hesitate to call it a “philosophy,” a word he would obviously consider “snobby.”)

Many people have suggested that his own degrees are evidence that he doesn’t really believe his charges that colleges and universities “indoctrinate” young people, make them lose their religion and become more like the hated Barack Obama, in other words, intellectual. I don’t agree; Santorum’s degrees are professional ones—in essence, high-order job training. (I’m not throwing rocks; I have a law degree, too.)

What Santorum apparently loathes and fears is education. Real education doesn’t “indoctrinate,” of course; it does something more pernicious. It raises questions.

Education is the archenemy of certitude.

If I do my job properly, my students will leave my classes a bit more confused, a bit less sure they have “the answers,” and a lot more aware of the magnitude of the questions. They will encounter the diversity with which we mortals approach the uncertainties and complexities of the world we inhabit. They will know more, but they will also have a greater appreciation of what they don’t know. If I do my job well, they will also have critical tools they can use to assess the credibility of the information with which they are increasingly bombarded.

That is the education Santorum detests, because—despite being Catholic—he is cut wholly from Puritan cloth.

The Puritans came to America for religious liberty—defined as the right to practice the True Religion, and the even more important right to impose that Truth on their neighbors. They approached education much like TV’s “Jeopardy”—you started with the correct answer, which the Bible provided, then you went looking for the explanations that would justify that answer. Usually, in the early colonies, those explanations came from the preachers and biblical scholars who’d preceded you.

The philosophical and scientific movement that came to be called the Enlightenment changed the nature of knowledge. You no longer began with the answer; instead, you began with questions. You examined the world around you, based some initial conclusions on careful empirical observations, then tested those conclusions, which were always considered conditional and subject to change if new information emerged.

The Enlightenment gave us the scientific method, as well as a more scientific and reasoned approach to questions like, “How should governments be constructed?”

The U.S. Constitution was grounded in the “new learning” of the Enlightenment. But while the Enlightenment and the scientific method gave us the world’s first government of and by the people, it also gave us an inescapable element of modernity: ambiguity.

Education—real education, as opposed to job training—prepares students to live with that ambiguity. It prepares them to make their way in a world where other people will come to different conclusions about matters of ultimate purpose and moral seriousness.

Puritans find ambiguity intolerable.•


Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. Her column appears monthly. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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