Stephen H. Webb
First Things May 6, 2008
Christians believe that God became human in Jesus Christ. If so, it follows that there is something called humanity. That is, humans have a nature, a shared or common nature. Human nature is not just a social construction. Human nature is real. And if it is real, then it is the same everywhere and at every time. It is, in a word, universal.
The idea that human nature is universal might seem simple to you, and it is. All true ideas are simple, because anyone can grasp them. Yet, believe it or not, you are about to enter a world that treats the idea of a universal human nature as simple-minded foolishness. The really sad thing is that your professors will not try to complicate this idea. To complicate an idea, you have to first take it seriously. Rather than argue about this idea, most of your professors will simply ignore it. You see, the idea of a universal human nature is contrary to everything most professors, at least in the humanities, believe. And that makes it one of the most radical ideas you can hold as a student.
The central dogma of higher education goes by many names, but its basic thrust is as easy to grasp as it is hard to miss. Whether it is called multiculturalism, social constructionism, or left-leaning liberalism, the bottom line is that higher education in America these days promotes cultural relativism. Colleges do not advertise this fact for obvious reasons, but look closely at what they say in their promotional literature. Colleges talk about broadening your perspective, expanding your horizons, and offering you new experiences, but they do not talk about teaching you how to make moral judgments, how to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly, and how to seek the truth. That is because secular liberal-arts colleges and public universities do not believe you should make moral judgments, contemplate the beautiful, or acknowledge universal truths. And they don’t believe these things because they do not believe there is something called human nature.
The college you have chosen to attend is no worse, and probably a little bit better, than most colleges when it comes to multiculturalism, but it is always wise to be prepared when you go to school. What you most need to know is that the “higher” in higher education no longer refers to the high culture of the greatest works of Western civilization. In fact, higher education has been trying to dismantle this culture for decades. Higher education today is all about lowering the great books and great ideas of the past to the same basic level. Rather than ask you to climb the great heights of the classics, professors these days will ask you to tear them down. Rather than ask you to test your intellectual strength by pitting yourself against the greatest thinkers of the past, professors will teach you the intellectual equivalent of etiquette and manners. You will learn how to talk without embarrassing yourself in polite, educated company. You will learn what to say, not how to think.
Education used to hold students to the highest standards of Western culture, but now it gives students bits and pieces of many cultures. Nonetheless, multiculturalism is not a plot devised by left-leaning liberals to dumb down America, though it often seems like that. Instead, multiculturalism follows inexorably from the rejection of a universal human nature. If there is no single human nature, then there is no single standard for human excellence either. Indeed, there is no single standard for anything, from rationality to morality. When rationality and morality are reduced to social constructions, the best we can do is learn how societies construct things, rather than why certain constructions endure the test of time. Learning becomes a matter of uncovering the social and historical context behind every book and every idea. Rather than ask what a text has to teach us, we now have to dig deep in order to ask what the text is trying to hide. And the answer to that question is presupposed from the start: What is foundational to all social constructions just happens to be what is so self-congratulatory about modern education. All books and ideas are trying to hide their prejudices about race, gender, and class. Learning is about identifying with the experiences of the victims of social injustice—experiences that will be held up for you as absolutely different from your own.
Multiculturalism might seem like a harmless game of cultural tourism mixed with a little detective work, with the crime (sexism and racism) always being the same, but it is actually much more serious than that. Liberal professors assume that you, the student, come to their classes believing in universal truths, and they think that it is their job to get you to leave such baggage behind. Since professors these days do not believe in human nature, they think that the most important thing they can do is to teach you that all values are relative. And they do this by trying to convince you that you do not understand other cultures because you are trapped in your own.
Here is how the game is played: They will first try to convince you that you are a racist, a sexist, and an enemy of social justice. Then they will argue that the victims of racism, sexism, and cultural elitism have a privileged view of these issues. It is as if the victim of the crime were to be given the first, last, and only word in a trial, with no cross-examination and no other witnesses called. Your job as a student in the multicultural classroom is to grant unquestioned authority to those who come from underprivileged or marginalized backgrounds. You have to do this because, you will learn, because Western culture has exploited every other culture, and your experiences are so shaped by Western culture that you cannot question those who criticize you. And thus you will become a good cultural leftist (which is the shape liberalism takes in the academy), or, if you are not convinced by these arguments, you will learn how to fake it for the sake of getting a good grade.
All of this is profoundly anti-Christian, which is why Christian students are typically the most radical questioners of higher education. Because Christians believe in a universal human nature, they also believe they can make universal truth claims about human nature. That does not mean that every statement about human nature is true. Of course not! A central part of education is learning how to argue by testing your own ideas about human nature against the ideas found in great books and the ideas espoused by your teachers and fellow students. Christians believe, for example, that because we are created in the image of God, every single person is of infinite worth, but Christians also believe that humans are fallen creatures, in need of grace and forgiveness. Christians are thus able to appreciate both the majesty and the misery of human actions. That is a powerful framework for questioning what you read and hear. What Christians do not believe is that every culture has its own truths and that the only way to learn about another culture is to refrain from seeking the universal truth.
To return to the central truth of Christianity, Christians believe that God experienced the totality of the human condition by becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ. That is, God did not need to become incarnate in each one of us in order to understand every one of us. Each one of us can experience a personal relationship with Jesus because Jesus was completely one of us. If cultural relativism is true, then Christianity is doomed, because God became incarnate in a very specific person at a particular time and place. From the perspective of multiculturalism, God could not have understood what it means to be human by becoming a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth. It follows that if God did understand man by becoming a man, then multiculturalism is a lie.
Applying this truth to the world of higher education, we can say that every human life is, in principle, sufficient for the discovery of every truth. You don’t need new experiences to become educated; you just need deeper ways of understanding your own experience. As a human being in the midst of passing into adulthood, nothing human is alien to you. You need to learn how to think more carefully, imagine more fully, and judge more humanely, but you do not need to learn that your beliefs are wrong because they are limited by your experiences and that the only way to broaden those beliefs is to immerse yourself in radically new experiences. What is true in any book you read or any idea you consider is true because it is true for everyone, and its truth is available to you because you already have the rudiments of what it means to be human.
Christianity inspired and informed the highest achievements of Western culture in order to challenge people to think about the eternal things, like heaven and hell, God, grace, forgiveness, and death. A college education should immerse you in the highest achievements of Western culture in order to give you the tools to enrich your experiences and refine you moral judgments. Education in this sense is about coming to know yourself, not because you construct your own reality, but because your nature is the same as everyone else’s. When a multiculturalist professor tells you that all truth is relative, ask him how he knows that, and when he tells you that Western culture is wicked and wrong, ask him what cultural criteria he is using to make that comparison. Better yet, do not ask your professors these questions, because multiculturalism is killing higher education as sure as the Romans killed Jesus. Share your questions with your friends, find a professor friendly to your faith, and keep higher education in your prayers.
Stephen H. Webb, ’83, is professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence: A Nation with a Mission, The Divine Voice, and Dylan Redeemed: From Highway 61 to Saved.