Yesterday on this page, Samuel Bagg contrasted Yale’s tolerant present with its intolerant past. He applauded Yale’s transition from an exclusivistic training ground for Christian clergymen into an “accepting” training ground for — well, whatever it is that Yale graduates are supposed to be these days. It therefore seemed rather inconsistent when he referred to our campus as a “tightly sealed secular bubble.” After all, can an impenetrable bubble of secularism aptly be called “tolerant”?
Many students would say that it can. Secularism, the theory goes, represents a neutral system of ideas and policies. It allows for peaceful coexistence and cooperation among people espousing a wide variety of values, religions and philosophies. In the public sphere, we can all agree on the “facts,” and in the private sphere we are free to practice our religions and live by our private values. In this sense, we are “tolerant” of people who hold to different religions and values — we simply ask that they not bring them into the public sphere.
However well it may strike our tolerance-obsessed ears, this reasoning is faulty. There is simply no “neutral” way to run a university — nor to teach a class, nor to organize a country, nor even to reason about reality.
Consider perhaps the most radical example of a man striving for unbiased neutrality: René Descartes. He endeavored to disregard everything that had gone before him, to doubt all that he had ever thought before, and then to construct an edifice of objective rationalism upon unshakable foundations. Yet in the very process of striving for a system built upon impartial foundations, Descartes held firmly to certain assumptions that he had yet to justify — that truth is worth striving for.
Now, I would affirm Descartes’ belief in the value of truth. My point, however, is that this belief is not a “neutral” one. It is not unquestionable — indeed, Nietzsche would question it a few centuries later. Without knowing it, Descartes was borrowing from a tradition stretching from the ancient Greek philosophers to the Romans and on through Christendom. That tradition, contrary to many others, believed in a rational universe and affirmed the value of pursuing truth through rational inquiry. Hence, in the act of doing philosophy, Descartes was affirming one of the fundamental features of the very tradition from which he hoped to escape.
When it comes to neutrality, the University cannot hope to fare much better than Descartes. Every University policy, despite any pretensions to impartiality, expresses a particular view of the world and of proper human conduct. The lack of a core curriculum, for instance, presupposes a decidedly non-neutral epistemology. Knowledge is conceived as atomized “facts” that students can gobble up like Pac-Man. And as in the old Apple Jacks tagline, students eat what they like. At Yale, they can even go grocery shopping for classes during the first two weeks of the semester.
Less prominent examples might also be used to demonstrate the inherent non-neutrality of University policies. The ubiquity of condoms around campus suggests that sexual intercourse is an acceptable activity for college undergraduates. Sex Week conveys the same idea. It is not my purpose to counter this idea, but merely to point out that every action on the part of the University sends a certain message. That message makes particular assumptions about right and wrong, the human condition, and even the purpose of life. It is never neutral.
Nor can we consider the assumptions of the modern-day classroom to be neutral. In truth, nearly every discipline has been infiltrated with methodological naturalism such that the realm of the spirit and the supernatural is excluded from the beginning. Scholars are essentially forbidden from appealing to God, miracles, or revelation to account for our experience. Historians cannot talk about providence, scientists cannot talk about the soul, and social scientists cannot talk even about self-sacrificing love.
This is called “tolerance.”
Bagg is right to say that we find ourselves in a bubble of secularism. But this secularism deceives itself when it assumes an air of tolerance and inclusiveness. Sure, people of all faiths and beliefs are allowed to attend Yale. It would be impossible, however, for Yale to enact policies and form curricula that accommodate everyone. One creed will be normative. At Yale, it is the creed of secularism.
Thus, it turns out that Yale is no more tolerant, no more inclusive, than the evangelicals who hold up the Bible as the only source of truth. The only difference is that when it comes to its exclusivity, Yale lacks self-knowledge.