In his second inaugural address, President Obama called on Americans to act “as one nation and one people” and bring to the “debates of our time” a “common effort and common purpose.” The president might have jump-started the process himself by proposing a remedy to the strident tone of our civic discourse.
This situation has been much lamented, especially by professors, particularly in law and politics. They deplore our politicians’ incapacity to see things from the other side’s point of view, speak civilly, and achieve compromise for the sake of the public interest. What they fail to recognize is their own role in shaping the landscape they condemn.
Officially, our colleges and universities remain committed to providing students a liberal education. Liberal here is used not in the narrow partisan sense — the left wing of the Democratic Party — but in the broad classical sense. A liberal education involves open and far-ranging instruction in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences in order to prepare students for life in a free society.
Accordingly, the primary task of liberal education is to transmit knowledge and cultivate students’ ability to think for themselves. Indirectly, however, educators cannot help but shape character. When faculty perform their jobs properly, liberal education fosters above all the virtue of intellectual integrity, which involves respecting facts, honoring evidence, vigorously exploring arguments, and cherishing the inevitable and illuminating diversity of opinion in a free society.