“We may go out with a whimper instead of a bang”— A Conversation With Dr. Scott Yenor
Late last month Nicholas Bartulovic and Josh Frey of The New Lyceum editorial staff sat down to have a conversation with Dr. Scott Yenor, professor of political science at Boise State University, to talk about the state of conservatism on college campuses (particularly in regards to the controversy which happened to him last semester), his involvement in classical education, and his recent scholarship and publication on David Hume.
Nicholas: Thank you very much for doing this interview Dr. Yenor, I think we should just dive right in since you have dinner on the way. So, we were curious if you could tell us for our readers who may not know, what exactly happened to you personally at Boise State last semester.
Dr. Yenor: Well I published some things over the summer through the Heritage Foundation the first of which was a big report called Sex and Gender and the Origins of the Culture War. In which I trace the ideas of contemporary feminism and show how contemporary feminist ideas which separate sex from gender lead naturally into something like transgenderism. And then I published a bunch of supporting articles about that, including one which argued that transgender activists seek to undermine the family. And specifically they seek to do it by undermining the idea of parental rights.
Anyway those things were published and posted on the school’s website, and over the course of the semester, there were calls to investigate me by the faculty senate. Our Student Diversity and Inclusion Officer, his name is Francisco Salinas, wrote a kind of incendiary attack on me, likening me to a Neo-Nazi, blaming me for various genocides and other things. There were petitions to have me fired. Nothing ultimately came of these efforts. Cooler heads prevailed and I am still a full professor. So it would have been very difficult to do anything to me given that I had tenure. So I kept my head down and got through the semester.
Nicholas: You mention all of this and every day, you, myself, Josh all see these stories for the last few years about campus hysteria and free speech in the news. Did you ever think that you would get roped into something like this or what exactly was the feeling you had when all of this happened to you?
Dr. Yenor: Well honestly I was quite disappointed in my institution and the people who were there. I mean it didn’t shock me that there was a concerted effort on the part of some to go after me on this. I thought maybe there was a 10% chance that something would happen when I published my Heritage pieces.
And the earth has just moved under our feet in the past seven or eight years, because the book I wrote in 2011 called Family Politics, I think was a much more radical book than anything I wrote for the Heritage Foundation. I mean the Heritage Foundation is a very mainstream Conservative organization. They’re not publishing things by bomb throwers. If you want to see some bombs thrown read Family Politics! And that book was the cornerstone of my promotion from associate professor to full professor. It has sold a lot of copies for an academic book and there were no calls from anyone on campus for anything when that book came out. So I do think something has happened in the past seven years, a certain tipping point of radicalism in the universities, and that my Heritage work is a kind of indicator of that.
Nicholas: So you talk about how you were kind of ready for this, because the past few years this has been happening. Is this just the new normal for a professor nowadays if you challenge the status quo of liberal academia? Is that just what we have to deal with or is there any easy solution to the problem?
Dr. Yenor: Well there is no easy solution, and this is just the reality that conservative professors face. You can do great work, and if you hit certain rails you are in jeopardy, and all of us know that. Even the most moderately phrased, measured kind of article, like I wrote (there is nothing incendiary about what I wrote), and no one read what I wrote on campus for the most part, and I can share with you statistics with you on these things. But if you’re touching these rails, there is a problem.
And the tipping point has something to do with the volume of liberals on campus. When I was going to school, and I am going to date myself a little bit here, but I graduated in 1993, and it was typical that the discrepancy between Conservative and Liberal professors would be one Conservative for every four Liberal professors across the humanities, across the social sciences. And that number is now something like one for every eighteen. So, there is a lot less diversity of thought on campus. And then the other part of the apparatus that is being built are these diversity and inclusion office-types that are popping up on many campuses, and they are there to enforce that orthodoxy through persuasion, through curriculum, through teaching, through cultivating student activists, and that is really what happened in my case.
Josh: Dr. Yenor, when we read Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in our senior seminar, one of the arguments Tocqueville makes about America is in American politics, an appeal to equality will pretty much always be the political trump card, and that Americans will sacrifice just about anything for equality. And that’s one area I think both the gay marriage movement and now the transgender rights movement have really pushed that these are movements for equality, and Conservatives have had a hard time answering that. Do you think at some point there could be a push back against this, or will this crusade for equality continue in perpetuity?
Dr. Yenor: Yeah that is a great question, so let me try and take a step back and then do it. So I think there are two things that converge to make sexual politics, both same-sex marriage and the acceptance of homosexuality, this idea of transgender rights, important or attractive to Americans and difficult to resist: one of them you mentioned was the idea of equality. And the other idea, that may be a product of equality, but the idea that it is man’s mission to conquer nature, to be master of his own destiny, his own world, to define his own world. So the revolutions which have happened in family life, human beings are taking more and more of an assertive role in defining for themselves what marriage is, and then ultimately what sex is, what gender is. And so they are defining the world for themselves and conquering nature, and we have to respect everyone’s rights to conquer nature, that’s the quality part.
Josh: So there can’t be any victory over nature if something as random as your gender is…
Dr. Yenor: Yeah what sex you are. So sex, that is your body, cannot mimic your identity. That is really the root of transgenderism. And I’m not saying Francis Bacon was picking up on that when he talked about the ability to relieve man’s estate. I’m not saying Machiavelli was saying that when he talked about conquering chance in The Prince, but you can see how it’s not a totally crooked line from the modern project to something like transgenderism.
So, it’s something deeply rooted in modern culture, and hence that is why I said earlier that there is no easy solution to the academic problem. There is no easy solution to this problem. I look at it as a manifest intensification of our regime. By which I mean, our regime is becoming less able to handle the diverse ways of life that human beings live and it’s becoming purer and more one type. Eventually regimes become so pure that they can’t sustain themselves. We are seeing that in various ways in Western Europe and the United States with the decline in birth rate and such. We may go out with a whimper instead of a bang, but that will be nature’s revenge.
Josh: Yeah we talked about it a little bit and my optimism told me that at some point the claims of equality would become such an offense to common sense that normal rational people would stop taking them seriously. And I would like to think we’ve hit that point soon but recent events may be proving me wrong.
Dr. Yenor: Yeah, I mean what it takes to be honored in American Society is obviously undergoing some sort of change and common sense is what is another way of saying what is honorable or shameful in a particular society. So common sense is itself constructed in some way by society on many of these things, which is why it’s difficult to know if the rolling revolution has some natural endpoint.
Nicholas: Just to bounce off that, obviously transgenderism, gay marriage, abortion, some of these large issues we have, couldn't have possibly been foreseen by the Founders, but is there anything they actually could have done to fix some of these natural problems of the regime which Tocqueville highlights.
Dr. Yenor: Well here America ends up looking like the rest of the world. By which I mean, places where you have modern commerce and advanced states, that East Asia, Europe, United States, are all converging on these matters. Same-sex marriage is legal, encouraged, all over Europe and most parts of Eastern Europe. East Asia has more of a birth-rate problem than anyone in the rest of the world. Transgenderism as an idea is pervasive across the civilized world.
So there seems to be something dissolving these institutions in the modern world, and I think it would be very difficult to plant something which would limit these ideas and defend them in the modern context. I mean the Founders had a very sensible policy when it came to the family, when it came to the differences between men and women, and that policy would be overcome in about 80 years, if not 80 maybe 120. It would be very hard to imagine how you would enact permanence in that particular area, or any area really.
They foresaw a lot of problems, but you know foreseeing a problem is not the same as to solve them once and for all.
Josh: And Nick I actually think your question may be a little unfair to the Founders, so I am going to defend them quickly. Because the passion for equality that Tocqueville describes and I think the Founders were aware of, could be a danger in a regime like ours. The excess of the danger was seen in the French Revolution and other places, and the Founders set up good safeguards against those. I think if you were to ask them (and I don’t want to put too many words into their mouth) they probably would have said, the family is inherently unequal, and should be, the father is not equal to his two-year old son, a man is not equal to his wife in several ways that are just inherent to nature, and I don’t know how we should have expected them to foresee that people would begin trying to impose equality on those relationships, when it seems pretty apparent with nature there’s not an equality there.
Nicholas: I agree that it is a bit of an unfair question, but still something we need to consider...So shifting gears a little bit, and I don’t know if Josh has any other lingering questions about that, but I know that you’re very involved with the school your son attended, the Ambrose School, where you’ve sat on the board for many years. Why exactly do you believe schools like the Ambrose School are so important to America, its education, and civic life.
Dr. Yenor: Well, we try and provide two things: a Great Books as opposed to a scientific education; and what I mean by that is that the education culminates in raising the big questions such as “what is human destiny,” “what is the good life,” “what does truth look like,” and tries to provide Christian answers for them, because our churches and our universities that purport to be Christian universities, have a difficult time even resisting the trends of modern culture. So we are trying to get people early to let them know how Christians answer and why we raise these questions.
So the first part is we are trying to save humanities education. And the second reason is that the school puts at the center of its mission the formation of character, or what the Greeks called paideia. And we think every kind of education is a paideia. That every kind of education forms your character. But given the trends in modern life, we don’t think public schools do a great job forming people’s judgment and character; their understanding of virtue relies mainly on tolerance and a lot less on courage and moderation, and justice, and wisdom. So we also emphasize a Christian paideia, that other schools can’t or wouldn’t even if they could, and those two reasons are why I have stayed so involved over the years.
Nicholas: Josh I know over the last couple months that you have been substitute teaching at public schools and I don’t know if I am putting words in your mouth this time...I know how you’ve complained to me how can we even ask these great questions, or even engage in education without a Christian answer to it. If you remember that conversation you could help me out here…
Josh: Yeah...the disenchantment I had with the public schools stemmed from a disappointment that they would approach the question of “what is the good life,” “what is virtue;” and their answer to that was essentially it doesn’t matter. Because if I talk to a principal in the public schools, most of the teachers would say they are trying to provide a morally neutral education, and I don’t think that is possible. But Dr. Yenor, I am actually curious to hear how you would respond to someone who said they were providing a morally neutral education. Because you said earlier that any education is character education.
Dr. Yenor: Yeah, I mean they’re teaching people about how not to care about the great questions. They’re teaching people that there are only irrational answers to the most important questions. And they’re teaching people, if you want to think of it like this, how to follow their most predominant passions instead of learning how to control them. So they’re educating people towards self-expression, not self-control; away from self-government and towards something like self-indulgence. If we can’t reason about what the ends of human life are, then it doesn’t matter what you do. That is why I believe all education must be paideia.
The people you are talking with in your school that say they are trying to provide a morally neutral education are standing on the backs of people who knew better. John Dewey knew better. He was trying to provide a moral education, and he knew what he was trying to educate people away from, and he knew what he was trying to educate people towards. So yeah, you’re just dealing with lazy epigomes: day-laborers in a vast process to change the country and to change character.
Josh: The effect of that education seems to be that any question of religion or morality, if it even crosses these student’s minds at all, is just considered a matter of opinion. And as a matter of opinion, my opinion is just as good as yours and there is no reason to think or talk about it.
Dr. Yenor: Yeah we could isolate this in two different ways. So think about how you teach literature. Alright, so my understanding in this, I am not an expert in this, and I don’t sit in on literature classes in public schools, but from talking with people, there is a heavy emphasis in literature on technique, being able to identify foreshadowing, being able to identify metaphors, or something like that. So when you read...I am just going to pick out a book here on the shelf...When you read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or whatever, that is what I am looking at. Let’s say you read Crime and Punishment, you emphasize the character development, and being able to summarize the plot, and when the crime is committed, “well here you can see it’s going to be committed because of foreshadowing;” but, can you really understand Crime and Punishment without understanding redemption, and guilt, and raise the questions “where does guilt come from,” “why do human beings commit crimes?” This seems to be what Dostoevsky is about. He was about meaning, human meaning. So, you totally have to suck the life out of these books in order to teach them in a way that doesn’t implicate someone’s way of life.
And let’s think about history. History, as the story is told, now this is again simplified and maybe a little unfair, but it’s social history, where one oppression after another is overcome by particular groups. So there is no reason to have pride in the country or the civilization because it hasn’t done great things, it’s just instead one long line of oppression. Well, that’s not morally neutral. How can you respect and love your civilization, or even really understand it if that is its central attribute.
So just in those two ways, we’re robbed of the ability to think about meaning and I don’t know, the balancing of our civilization by the way things are approached. Anyway, what we try to do at our classical school is overcome that to the extent that we can in our students.
Nicholas: Just to chime in a little bit on that point, I attended public school for my high school education and you described perfectly what happened when we read Crime and Punishment. I found it dreadfully boring, and I never picked it up again. I am thinking about these things and thinking of literature in light of character like you said earlier; and now it’s like I instantly want to instantly go back to that book and see all that I missed.
Dr. Yenor: Yeah, well you know it’s hard to find people educated enough to teach in the schools that we’re lucky to have a preponderance of families who are interested in providing this kind of education for their kids.
Nicholas: I don’t know if Josh had anything else he wanted to add to that, but my final inquiry I have for you is that you mentioned earlier in the conversation that you are a well published scholar, you’ve written many books and articles in various sources, but could you tell us a little bit about your new book on David Hume? Because he seems like a very overlooked philosopher/commentator of society by scholars, so why did you choose him and tell us a little about the book?
Dr. Yenor: Yeah, that book came out in last year, or it might’ve been 2016...well the name of the book is David Hume’s Humanity The Philosophy of Common Life and its Limits. So Hume has this reputation for being a skeptic and the people who write on Hume are kind of over that, and the new understanding of Hume is that he is a “philosopher of common life.” What that means is that he investigates matters without having to untangle messy metaphysical, epistemological problems. So for instance, I couldn’t tell you why or how I perceive in the world. I can’t really explain the mechanism of perception but I am not going to let that bother me. I am going to use my eyes and perceive and then give an account of what I have seen, and that is the philosophy of common life.
And what I try and do in the book is defend that Hume is a philosopher of common life, but then show how certain areas of human inquiry do not allow you to entertain the common sense matter of the subject, because they’re controversial in themselves. What is history? Well in order to read and give a history, you actually have to have an understanding of what history is. There is not a non-controversial assumption that you can entertain that allows you then to study history. Is history accident and chance? Is history a cycle with a rational end? So Hegel is a historian, Hume is a historian, but they both give radically different histories because they entertain different philosophies of history, just using that as one example.
So that is the limit of the philosophy of common life. You can’t always transcend messy, unanswerable questions. And when Hume writes on topics, like history, and especially like religion, he himself adopts very controversial assumptions that distort his own teaching. So I try to argue at the end of the book that Hume is a bad Humean. That he doesn’t consistently adhere to the philosophy of common life, and I sketch what that would look like. So that is a quick summary of what the book is about. Does that make sense?
Nicholas: Yeah! So what initially propelled you to get into Hume per-se?
Dr. Yenor: Well Hume is a critic of, I don’t know, science, but is also a modern. So I am interested in people who endorse the broad contours of the modern republic, but who don’t do it on reductionistic ground. That is, he is not a social contract theorist, he’s not a state of nature theorist, he would never put himself in an original position like John Rawls, and try to reason about what the nature of society should be. He’s a critic of that approach, but he nevertheless embraces the broad contours of our civilization, and hence is a really interesting kind of guy I think.
Nicholas: So this may be a silly question, but why should everyone read Hume?
Dr. Yenor: Well, for the reason I just said I suppose. I think the most attractive thing about Hume is his theory of judgement. You can find it in his articles on the refinement of the arts, of the standard of judgement. He was also just immensely learned, and came up with, granted very controversial judgements about historical people, the nature of commerce; but, he did it from the standpoint of someone who was wise about the world. And you can learn what it is to be wise about the world from Hume’s account of what it means to be wise about the world. That is from the essays I was just mentioning, especially “on the standard of judgement.” So that is what I think is one of his great contributions to a learned life. So if everyone were to read Hume I would say, you know, learning what it means to be learned is what you can learn.
What I mean by that is there is a lot of talk today, especially in universities, where “were not going to judge you on content, were going to make sure instead that you know how to learn. You know the learning outcomes, you can engage in critical inquiry, and analysis,” or something like that. And Hume says essentially that you can’t divorce those two things. There is only wisdom about human life, and that requires content. There is no learning outcome like that, you can’t divorce form and content. And that is a very helpful and important corrective to all these trends in education. So Hume is a really crucial person, and his mode of thinking is very crucial today especially I think.
Nicholas: Well with that I think we will call this an end and thank you Dr. Yenor, it was really great talking to you and thank you for taking the time out of your day to talk to us.
Josh: Yes, thank you Dr. Yenor.
Dr. Yenor: I appreciate it guys, and enjoy the evening. Good bye!