The Case for Parental Choice: God, Family, and Educational Liberty
John E. Coons
This is an adapted excerpt from Chapter 5 of The Case for Parental Choice: God, Family, and Educational Liberty (Notre Dame Press, 2023) by John E. Coons and is based on previously unpublished remarks to the C.S. Lewis Foundation in February 2006.
In my own academic work I have often strayed into the transcendental, and even the specifically religious—certainly in my writing, but even in my teaching. In schools and departments of several universities, I have taught material that either has assumed a human person who is free and responsible to a higher source or took this as an issue to be explored. These courses were accredited in various disciplines that border law, in one case a school of theology. Generally, I taught them as the collaborator of some genuine professional of the other discipline; sharing the role of gadfly to each other’s specialties, we could not help but learn something of the attitudes and beliefs of these distinctive professional cultures within the university. I suspect that my primary qualification is simply that I began teaching in 1955. Thus I not only can retrieve fossil evidence from that ancient world but can myself serve as a specimen. I can claim depth in at least one dimension—time.
Since our discussion involves the place of religious creed in the university, I should confess my own and note my unremarkable history as a believer; this will allow you to discount my judgments as you think proper. Though my family was oddly split, I have from infancy traveled as a Catholic, and my orthodoxy no doubt contributes to my perception of just what it is that my colleagues believe, and seem encouraged to believe, by their environment. As I proceed, I will on occasion, by second nature, use the term “Catholic” when I could as well have said “Christian.” I intend no offense or exclusion, and where I have assumed too much I invite correction. So, at last now I really begin, and I do so with four generalizations that I think sufficiently important to state, even if I lack the time or art properly to defend them. Here they are:
- Over the last half century, as materialism (with its offspring subjectivism) has gradually become the academy’s most fashionable premise, believers have experienced estrangement within the life of the university.
- Believers within law faculties experience this alienation, but have come to it relatively late and in a distinctive manner that will be worth our noting.
- This isolation of the academic believer (whether lawyer, economist, or biologist) is not all bad; much depends upon what one is estranged from. Paradoxically, it is the conventional materialist who today finds himself isolated in the most cruel way from both colleagues and society; his own premises narrow the opportunities for shared intellectual enterprise and tend to leave us strangers.
- This state of affairs is unstable, and believers who keep their intellectual powder dry may yet play the role of the saving remnant, rescuing the academy from its self-imposed exile.
These four balloon judgments rest more than a little on personal observations over the fifty-nine years since I entered college, and there is no avoiding scraps of autobiography. I will report the changes in academic culture as I have observed them, beginning with the general academic outlook in the late 1940s and 50s, then gradually focusing more upon those law schools and their fostering universities—especially Northwestern and Berkeley—that I know best. I will sprinkle a few conclusions along the way, then again at the end.
In the late 1940s, I attended an obscure but lovable public university in my hometown in Minnesota. I will try to reset its social-intellectual scene. The general atmosphere of town and gown was, I think, typical of the Midwest in those times. Except for an occasional Chippewa, the larger urban area of 125,000 was solidly Caucasian; the university almost so. Though religiously and ethnically mixed, the town of Duluth was overall a community of considerable social trust, not only within the resident population but also within the university itself, and between the university and the public. Whatever the professors were up to might have been over the heads of people like my largely unschooled parents, but the typical citizen assumed correctly that such brainwork was all intended in service of a permanent order of the True and the Good in whose reality few doubted.
The empirical content of that intellectual order—more specifically, the material insights of the physical sciences—was well understood by everybody to be in a state of constant and progressive change; the stuff of this world was to a point intelligible, and it was our calling to keep on probing its secrets day by day. But, just why anything—material or otherwise—had come to exist at all was something else again. Here there were eternal verities, including an ultimate source of the True and the Good and of our personal duty to represent them in our own lives. The professors quarreled among themselves over many important things, including religion. And, to be sure, there was what we call religious “discrimination”; in those days, relatively few Catholics or Jews were to be found as professors in my university, much less as deans or chancellors. But everyone agreed that there was a True and a Good, and, at some obscure level, they knew its author.
Within a decade or so this consensus was to splinter. Whatever its immediate causes, this shift had been prepared by three centuries of Western philosophy that finally found its opportunity to flood the culture of higher education. The herd of academics whose belief drowned in that torrent is hard to characterize. Of course, many professors did maintain their settled and independent paths, but a critical mass at the center was to shift, more or less unconsciously, as a conforming bloc; a significant number of faculty simply lost their unreflective confidence that we live in an order of things that is supported by real authority, one that has a claim on our allegiance. For convenience, let me refer to these more pliant and representative professors as “modal academics.” I will try in greater detail to describe their worldview before, and then after, their defection.
Until the 1960s, these minds, as a practical matter, had managed to accept the general conception of authority that was common to the various versions of Christianity; they had done so while simultaneously affirming the great project of the Enlightenment. The two worldviews were assumed to be compatible. Insofar as the enterprise of the Enlightenment was conceived as a pure search for truth, I suppose they were. Western religion has had its occasional retreats into obscurity, but its own premises always drive it toward an ultimate intelligibility; indeed, much of seventeenth-century thought emerged from enthusiastically believing minds, such as Newton’s.
In a second and crucial respect, however, the two inspirations were not compatible. From the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the spirit of modernity ever-more consciously delivered the individual not merely from ecclesiastical authority but from every burden grounded in belief. At first obscurely, but then more clearly, it became a liberation from all external claims whatsoever. Man’s nature carried no imperative, and he was free to make himself according to his own private will. He was on his own, nor could we even say, “God help me.”
Whether or not the logic of their premises allowed it, most of the great Enlightenment minds had tended to agree with Christianity to this extent: the factual and moral objects of human reason are real, and it is the free search for the truth about them that constitutes man’s unique vocation. The new dispensation of the 1960s removed the vestiges of this premise. There are no real moral objects. Hume was right. What we can know is exhausted in the subjective perceptions that are generated by stimulations of our individual neural systems. Reason’s role, then, is not to hunt the real, which is a phantasm, but only to discover new techniques that can satisfy individual preferences; we can either maximize these preferences for society as a whole or—to the contrary—manipulate them to serve some personal end of our own. The point of doing the one or the other was no longer clear. Indeed, the act of moral choice had lost its intelligibility. When I am my own authority, by what measure shall I command myself?
It remains a question why so many of my good-hearted fellow academics—many of them active in plausible social causes—took this slide into subjectivism. An autonomy so exaggerated is, in the end, self-canceling. If the True and the Good are merely the private deliverance of one’s digestion, they cease altogether to be intelligible concepts. And so they have for many a good intellect that has taken curious comfort in denying whatever reality might lurk outside the lockbox of his or her own mind. Cowering inside the box of his own consciousness, the materialist pulls the cover shut, taking refuge among the phantoms of the ego, those unruly goblins that believing generations had rejected as mankind’s primordial intellectual and moral enemy. He prefers these demons of his own invention to the “Hound of Heaven” that might await him outside the box, confronting him with the responsibility of a real authority.
The public’s former confidence in the university has since eroded. It is being replaced by two plausible convictions. First, the academic no longer merits special trust, except, perhaps, in the technical stuff of science and the professions. Second, it follows that, if society should support higher education, it should do so more for its direct practical benefits than for its inquiry into the good life. And here, whoever pays the bill for the college freshman—parent or voter—faces a considerable dilemma. Kids still must learn something that will make them a living. Thus, higher education survives more and more as an economic mediary, and it should not surprise us that the free market now has its way within the halls of ivy.
The flight from belief in an objective order of the good has had its inevitable effects upon the day-to-day culture of academe itself. For one thing, it has accelerated the retreat of the scientific part of the old community of scholars into its narrow, scattered, and uncommunicating specialties. As the fund of common human wisdom and uniting purpose shrinks, the cloistered professor of the laboratory more nearly approximates the norm, each doing his or her own lonesome windowless thing supported by whatever parochial outside source is interested in this specific work. In the process we become strangers. I lose access to their worlds, and they to mine. These secular monks desperately need the fresh air of catholicity, if only with a small “c.”
Lawyers love case studies, and I will now peek at the case I know best—the law school itself. The general academic rejection of responsibility to any authority that is external to one’s own mind has had a distinctive effect upon law faculties, because of the peculiar nature of law and of the intellectual habits of the profession that serves it. Law faculty were for very long heedless of the atomizing implications of advancing subjectivism. Paradoxically, the problem was in part our own relative sophistication. We were already smugly aware that the law we know and profess is to a considerable degree fortuitous in its content and vulnerable to change. This did not deny that judges usually stick to the rules, but we knew that, in the common law world—as in crucial parts of U.S. constitutional law—it is the judges who had invented the rules in the first place.
Thus, when secular prophets such as Justice Holmes taught us what they quaintly misnamed “legal realism,” few of us were shocked. We saw that Holmes was right about most practical things, and if, in his ignorance, he had constructed a caricature of natural law, at least we could thank him for the laugh. Only a handful grasped what was at stake, namely, the virtual extinction of law’s authority. When responsibility itself becomes a human invention, not only are the rules mere accidents, but there is no reason beyond personal convenience to obey any of them. No legal philosopher or social contract can obligate the citizen to respect a rule, unless that citizen is already answerable to the authority that gave him reason in the first place and invited him to use it. This vacuum of true authority is today perfectly evident to almost every legal academic I know. Unhappily, most seem either to have cast their lot with Holmes or dropped into silence, further eroding the remnant of belief in a grander order of things. I cannot explain this death wish.
Now, I will double back a bit and ask what all this has had to do with my own life in the legal academy. I’m not sure there are lessons here, but there are a few suggestive stories. Among my colleagues at Northwesterrn, I was myself a curiosity. Maybe one or two were churched; none was Catholic. Indeed, with few exceptions, their knowledge of things religious was surprisingly scant. And, of natural law theory they knew no more than the burlesque by Holmes. It would surprise me if the good minds that taught labor law had even heard of Rerum novarum (1891), the papal encyclical that had had rather considerable influence on the distinctive American system of labor relations. But, in any case, they turned out fine lawyers, and they were as generous and good to me as they were to one another, which was very good indeed. They sought a common practical objective with little discord, and they let the big questions ride. Only one of them ever pricked me for my belief. He is today in his nineties, the last survivor of that old academic gang, and we still keep in touch. Recently he reminded me once again that religion is bunk. It was a friendly observation.
My introduction to Berkeley was to be—as they say—something else. Considering what I just said, it will seem counterintuitive. Imagine this: just as most of the academy—with Berkeley itself at the front—was busy canonizing Timothy Leary, I walked into what could have passed for a papist conspiracy right there in the law school. I can’t resist one story that suggests the spirit of the place. The great canon lawyer Stephan Kuttner had just left the chair of Catholic Studies at Yale to join the Berkeley law faculty. At my first faculty meeting in the spring of 1968, we agreed to invite the distinguished Talmudic scholar David Daube to leave his fancy chair at Oxford, luring him with the following elegant telegram:
Catholics are fine but so are Jews
Kuttner’s coming, how about youse?
This vignette tells all I need say of the rich and open spirit of the place. By the way, while Jewish, Daube knew and greatly admired the Catholic Church. He was even known to visit Lourdes. His story allows me to flag one other of Berkeley’s religious aberrations—the magnificent Robbins Collection, of which David became a sort of living organ. Berkeley Law School has the largest collection of canon and religious law in the entire world. How we got it is a story for another time. In any case, its lush facilities are in great vogue among canonists and church historians on sabbatical.
These early years at Berkeley proved to be literally saturated in religious sophistication. It was an intellectual atmosphere of the most surprising sort, and one I think that was appreciated as much by Jewish and non-believing faculty members, who constituted the majority. In that era, no subject was politically incorrect simply by virtue of its transcendent implications. The believers learned from the skeptics, and they from us in a natural, uncalculating, and open-hearted forum. To be sure, on occasion it was noted that we were a bit short on Protestants, but in due course Phil Johnson rediscovered his Calvinist roots and to this day has managed, almost single-handedly, to keep the Reformation alive and well at Berkeley.
We must never create an aristocracy of the smart. But it has been the permanent temptation of the intelligentsia to confuse the best with the brightest. To this I wish to dissent. We should certainly make our contributions to the just distribution of resources, but believers should never attach false significance to the uneven distribution of any contingent good, and especially to the fortuitous good of human intelligence. We must avoid what G. K. Chesterton called the “curious confusion whereby being great is supposed to have something to do with being clever.”
That confusion is difficult to avoid once we exile God from serious human conversation. And, to the extent that the perfectibility of the human person comes to be judged by an intellectual standard, we will have re-created on the campus a form of that ancient idolatry known as gnosticism. The highest human achievement will consist in the grasp of a particular sort of truth, and it will be secular knowledge that will save us in the one, narrow, and exclusive way we can be saved. The elect will be limited to those who embody this vision of the educated.
We should be clear that the idolatry of knowledge is not a specialty of the campus or the unbeliever. It can be religious, secular, or something ambiguous between. The religious gnostic, as in antiquity, deems his particular theological insight essential to a self-perfection that, when achieved by or imputed to any person, entails justification and salvation. The secular gnostic perceives a different form of self-perfection, one to which belief in a God of any sort is a specific impediment. However, they agree on this. Getting wrong information and acting upon it are a barrier to the realization of the human ideal; the best among us, each supposes, are those who are brightest in their grasp of my own particular version of the truth.I think that there is hope for an epiphany here. I would predict that for many the flight from authority and objectivity will run its course—in your time, if not mine. It will die of its contradictions, but even more of its own boring dead weight. Of course, those inside academia but outside the narrow secular box are obliged to hasten that day as they can. We are patiently to anticipate and even encourage conversation with our colleagues—when they are ready. This is a responsibility we should prize and enjoy.♦
John E. Coons is the Robert L. Bridges Professor of Law (Emeritus) at Berkeley Law, University of California, Berkeley. In March 2023, the University of Notre Dame Press published his newest book, The Case for Parental Choice: God, Family, and Educational Liberty. The book is a collection of Coons’s essays edited by Nicole Stelle Garnett, Richard W. Garnett, and Ernest Morell.
Coons, John E. “Orphans of the Enlightenment: The Demoralization of the Academy and Law.” Canopy Forum, June 8, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/06/08/orphans-of-the-enlightenment-the-demoralization-of-the-academy-and-law/.