Liberalism vs. Humanism

New Criterion, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Liberalism vs. Humanism


Writing forty years ago in The New Industrial State, John Kenneth Galbraith called on academics and intellectuals to seize the mantle of national leadership which at that time (he said) was in the hands of a bipartisan coalition of corporate managers, union officials, and machine politicians. Galbraith feared that these conventional leaders had defined the goals of the industrial system too narrowly in terms of production, consumption, and employment when in fact a much broader vision was needed to direct the goals of the new economy toward aesthetic, artistic, and intellectual interests such that the lives of the American people might be elevated above mere work and consumption. Noting their growing influence within the Democratic Party and the increasing activism of students and faculty, Galbraith concluded that the colleges and universities of the nation were well-positioned to exercise political leadership in the name of those humane ideals that were expressed in the academic curricula and research programs of the time.

While Galbraith sought to harness academic humanism to the purposes of liberal politics, campus radicals tried to do something similar to augment the influence of the "New Left." In the Port Huron Statement, written in 1962, the founders of a new campus organization, Students for a Democratic Society, decried the loss of meaning and humane ideals in a consumer-driven economy. "The goal of man and society," the students wrote, "should be human independence: a concern not with image but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic." They wished to raise deep questions that their elders had brushed aside in their headlong pursuit of money and comfort: What is really important? Can we live in a different and better way? If we wanted to change society, how would we do it?

The radicals, too, astutely zeroed in on the university as (in their words) "a potential base and agency in a movement for social change." They viewed the university in nakedly political terms as a far better institutional base for their movement than a new political party. For one thing, the campus archipelago that stretched across the nation was home to both liberals and socialists as well as to millions of young people yearning for "change." These would be the key constituent groups for a new Left. For another, the university ethos gave a wide berth for political activity. "The University," the radicals said, "permits the political life to be an adjunct to the academic one." There was nothing to stop professors or students from becoming spokesmen and activists for the new politics. The young radicals asserted that "meaning" had to be found, not through study and reflection, but through political action.

That the university might be seized as a base for a political movement or that the humanistic ideals of the academy might be projected outward into the political process--these were novel and surprisingly compelling conceptions which together suggested that the academy had come of age as a partner in the institutional coalition that governed post-war America. Such propositions also pointed toward a reformulation of liberal doctrine away from the older emphasis on economic growth that held together the New Deal coalition. Both liberals like Galbraith and the student radicals seemed to agree that the time had come for a new emphasis in liberal thought on cultural, humanistic, and quality of life issues that had not previously been viewed in political or partisan terms. For both liberals and radicals, the university would play a key role in guiding this reformulation and in giving it political expression.

Much of what the liberals and radicals called for in the 1960s eventually came to pass, albeit in the rough-edged way by which history is made. Galbraith's idea of using the university to elevate national politics backfired in spectacular fashion, but the vision of turning it into a base for liberal and left-wing politics was soon achieved against only weak resistance from more traditionally minded academics. …

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