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The best universities, writes Paul Johnson

help to instill certain intellectual virtues in young minds, including respect for the indispensable foundation of democracy, the rule of law; the need to back up opinions with clear arguments, empirical evidence and hard work; the varying importance of resolute conviction and friendly compromise, when appropriate; open-mindedness at all times; and the perpetual need for courage in the pursuit of truth.

These are essentially moral qualities, which must form the basis of any university education.

He’s trying, in a short essay in Forbes, to justify the time and expense of a university education, and what I’ve just quoted is his conclusion, his answer to the question of justification.

I think he muddies things a bit when he talks about moral qualities, since what his list of intellectual virtues really has at its heart is dispassion, not any particular form of goodness. “Disinterested intellectual curiosity,” writes Trevelyan, “is the life-blood of real civilisation.”

Indeed I’ve long argued that the weakest universities, the weakest departments at universities, tend to be those that feature the most explicit moral stance, the most overt and self-aggrandizing ethical self-definition. Women’s Studies, that sort of thing. Some Ed schools subject their students to “disposition assessments” — a close personal examination, with an eye toward your having certain correct values. Instead of wanting free autonomous inquiry in their students – Johnson thinks this form of inquiry takes courage, but unless the only schools in your country are fundamentalist religious institutions, it doesn’t really take that much – they want sheep-like conformity. They test for it.

Johnson’s list stresses the cultivation of a very conscious distance from the convictions and opinions you bring with you to campus, an open-minded willingness to hold everything that seems to you obviously true and beautiful in a kind of abeyance.

It’s quite unnatural, this stance. Most people grow up in particular moral communities, internalize the beliefs of those communities, and go on living out their lives from there, without challenging those moral foundations very much, if at all. Truly university-educated people, Johnson suggests, are just the opposite – they have the guts or the obstinacy or whatever to pursue the truth as it gradually, contingently reveals itself through high-level argumentation and well-grounded evidence. (Today is the centennial of William James, and in an appreciation of him in The Daily Beast, his biographer writes that James is “our great prophet of the truth that there can be no one great permanent truth, but only the process of trueing, as a carpenter trues a board with a plane, or as a builder trues an upright with a plumb line.”)


Note, above all, that Johnson’s description of the instilling of intellectual virtue among university students presumes a flesh and blood professor actively modeling this virtue — a dispassionate figure at the front of the room embodying and articulating and organizing the class as democratic procedure. Discussion is argumentation based on evidence; it features the willingness to take on the hard task of making yourself understood, as well as the willingness to grant views very distant from your own some legitimacy.

So, as Johnson remarks, you need a certain lively verbal dialectic to be put in play in the classroom between what he calls conviction and compromise. The implicit conversation goes something like this:

This point of view seems to me true or persuasive or likely; something very much at odds with this seems to you true or persuasive or likely. I ask you why you believe as you do; you respond by asking me the same question; we go back and forth.

Back and forth, week after week, under the subtle guidance of a professor who has gathered all of us here precisely to put into play these debates, a professor who keeps us from falling into sloppy attitudinizing, who, via her own efforts in the direction of intellectual virtue, keeps us honest and disciplined.


Almost all of my classes, at the beginning of the term, have some students in them who are emotional and doctrinaire in what they say. “Anything can be art!” “Everything’s subjective!”

I find these students exciting, because — although I’m perfectly okay with their holding these views at the end of their time with me — I know that, with their impatient certainty about things, they will be my inspiration for the semester. They will start my engines every day. I will be directing immense pedagogical energy toward loosening their hold on those emotions, those doctrines.

Yet if they do accomplish this broadening, this loosening, it won’t primarily be because of me. It will be because of the complex and subtle drama of dispassion, conviction, and compromise that I will hope, from the front of the room, to direct. There’s something I want to make happen among my students, and Paul Johnson gets at what it is well enough.

University education takes place in the theater of the classroom. It can’t be put online.

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15 Responses to “The Pursuit of Truth”

  1. Pete Copeland Says:


    I’m no fan of online classes but your concluding statement seems to be so exhaustive as to be wrong (perhaps a consequence of your passion). Do you really think that certain aspects of mathematics couldn’t be learned over the internet?

    There may certainly be drama or conviction during the transmission of the details of a class on Partial Differential Equations but I don’t think there will be much compromise. (At least I don’t remember any from my math classes.) The Fundamental Theorem of Calculus will not yield to your opinion of it.


  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Pete: I know the model of education I have going here, derived from Johnson’s argument, fits better with the humanities and social sciences than it does with the hard sciences.

    Even there, though, I think there are very few classes – certain math classes would certainly be among them – that depart significantly from this model. And of course as you know the field of math includes all sorts of higher level courses full of passionate (to use your word) disputes of various kinds.

    As to whether certain established, fundamental, immovable aspects of math – or, say, English grammar – can be learned online — I guess so. But certain aspects do not equal a university course; nor do they contribute much to being university educated. Aspects like these are fragments of a complex, contested, and exciting whole — a truth that online students will never begin to glimpse.

    It is precisely the vocation of a university professor, even in lower-level math courses, to prepare students for, to hint at, a larger world of physics, philosophy, architecture, etc. with which these fragments interact. University educated people, from freshman classes onward, get a sense of the big, dynamic picture, of the thrilling restlessness of intellectual life. But of course they can’t get anything like this unless they have a human being in front of them getting excited about intellectual life.

    I have always granted that if you want to prepare to take your real estate license exam, an online refresher will do fine.

    If you want to enter fully into the life of the mind as it offers itself to you at a serious arts and sciences university, online is a joke.

  3. Richard Says:

    I recall reading about Leavis declining to record a lecture for radio, offering as his reason (there could have been others, and it’s tempting with Leavis to suppose so) a conviction that ethically and intellectually adequate teaching – the only kind he was interested in practising – was responsible in the direct sense. That is, an incredibly brave student could tell him he was barking, or (much, much more probably) could draw him out further on a point. Could offer resistance or a reminder of skepticism. Leavis’s phrasing of his refusal was wonderfully austere. I think it’s in one of the collections of his letters. Possibly Tasker’s ‘Letters in Criticism’.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever felt much warmth toward Leavis until just now, Richard.

  5. david foster Says:

    Just to play devil’s advocate: if it is possible for a *book* to cause someone to question his preconceived opinions, why wouldn’t it be possible for a well-done online class to accomplish the same thing?

  6. Tim Lacy Says:


    Books do what you say, but they also long for discussion. When we read a book, we nearly always feel a strong desire to share something about what we’ve read. And this sharing might also include spirited, spontaneous, real-time argumentation, is best done in three dimensions, not two.

    – Tim

  7. Notes in the Margins: A news roundup | On Campus Says:

    […] and blood: An English professor writes that a university education takes place in the “theater” of the classroom, where facts and discussion can help shake up students’ convictions and preconceptions. It […]

  8. In the provinces Says:

    A student recently denounced me in a course evaluation for “belittling” him, because I asked him to provide evidence for his assertions from a book our undergraduate seminar was discussing. Happily, I’m in a position where such comments on student evaluations don’t matter to me, but there are lot of people in contemporary American colleges and universities for whom this is not the case. There are a lot of obstacles to the implementation of Johnson’s ideals in an age of a therapeutic culture.

  9. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more, In the provinces.

  10. Bill Gleason Says:

    I liked UD’s quote: “University education takes place in the theater of the classroom. It can’t be put online.” so much that I tweeted it and, I suspect, MPR picked it up.

    Someone might argue, and has above,that this is a bit of an exaggeration, especially for math or science which can be learned from a book and which will not change (much) depending on your opinion of it.

    This evening I heard a lecture by a tag-team (Petsko and Ringe at Brandeis) about protein crystallography that basically reaffirmed my long held prejudice in favor of the lecture method. The classroom actually had a decent blackboard – the first decent one I’ve seen in 20 years [sic] – and these people knew how to use it.

    They were able to clearly and concisely get across some concepts that are extremely difficult. I know, because I’ve tried to to teach the same material. They could tell by the looks on students faces when things were not clear and inquire about why. They could also ask individual students questions to make sure that they were following along.

    Until online methods allow two way interaction with students through the video, there is no way that the theater of the classroom will be matched.

    I very much fear that online education is going to lead to two kinds of education and further stratify our society. In Minnesota, you don’t hear much about online education at Carleton or the other high quality institutions.

  11. University Diaries » Intellectual Quotient Says:

    […] from Googling around, who originated this line, but I thought I’d use it to begin a kind of Part Two of my post the other day about the nature of a serious university […]

  12. dance Says:

    UD: a view of “online education”

  13. j. Says:

    even in disciplines whose rigor is exact and formal like mathematics and logic, there is an enormous space, and need, for pedagogy that exploits the full range of in-person education. we’re not talking about passion and rhetorical inspiration. the ability to present a proof to students that’s given not all at once, like when loading a document, but written out over time, permits the teacher to closely coordinate the presentation of the proof, and more importantly, its explanation, with students’ difficulties at any moment in the presentation. that’s especially invaluable for teaching things like proof discovery (relevant even in an introductory logic course, but surely a core part of upper-level mathematics courses). and i have no doubt it’s the same way with problem-solving of even the sort that comprises the bulk of most lower-level courses like college algebra, trigonometry, or calculus that are likely to be thought of as needing only ‘instructing’ rather than ‘teaching’.

    (think of the importance of the mere ability to point to something on the board, to underline it, to modify it over time. this kind of stuff can be mimicked, in extremely deficient, limited ways, in current technology. but because it’s supposed to be cheaper right now and eventually will be perfected—virtual-reality holographic whatevers, futuristic virtual blackboards and such—is that really enticement enough to throw away or hobble all the abilities teachers have been, in some way or another, accumulating experience of and practice at throughout their lives as students and teachers?)

    here’s another one: think of the way that students might gradually, as the semester goes on, learn the habit of looking at their books when they don’t know something, when NOBODY in the room has an answer. in my experience they pick this up without my having to belabor it because they see each other start to do so, especially in particularly resounding silences.

    i’m also reminded of how often students of mine have commented to me privately, of their own accord, on how the other students in the room have carried themselves—not even necessarily how they talked, or were just quiet. it’s important for students to be able to see other students learning; it helps them understand what they themselves are doing (or not doing).

  14. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Couldn’t agree more, j., especially with your last point.

    I’ve often had students say to me that they began the semester feeling a bit one down, intimidated, by better read or just more confident students. The ultimate effect of the more confident students on the less, though, was usually to lift the game of the less confident students. They watched the stronger students, saw how they did their thing, emulated it. Or they were simply drawn in to discussions, eventually, by the provocative approach of the more confident students. Or maybe they felt they wanted to compete with the stronger students, whatever. Whatever the motivation, however it happened, these slightly more timid students were emboldened, typically, by the bolder.

    One thing I’m always reading about online that makes me despair: It’s great for students who are too shy to talk in class!

    It doesn’t occur to the people saying this that college is where you talk in class. It’s where you find your intellectual voice. Online offers you a perfect excuse not even to try to make this happen.

  15. j. Says:

    i think so too, but i have to say that the online course components i’ve been using do help some shy (or not even that: sometimes, students whose thoughts are TOO MUCH for class, in which the ways of organizing out-loud conversation have their own special conditions and limitations) students get more comfortable with talking in class.

    i’ve had students keep criticism blogs in an aesthetics course, and much more regularly, assigned brief ‘correspondence’ projects on topics from the readings, conducted via personal email with me, to extend indefinitely (usually 2-4 back-and-forths) until i tell them to stop. the basic idea was to find an effective way of practicing the kinds of revision of one’s thinking that is supposedly one point of revision of formal papers: use a form they find natural enough that it doesn’t make them choke up on their ability to write, and give them the experience of some extended, direct contact with another person thinking and reading and writing.

    the shy students in particular have made a point of noting how interested they are in having a way to participate that they think is better-suited to them. and often i get the most surprising responses from students whose intellectual development far outstrips that of some of their more vocal classmates.

    but, again, it seems like the contrast between writing and speech is crucial.

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