Rationality and the bubble

| Senior Forum Editor

In Creve Coeur, Mo.—the suburb of St. Louis where I grew up—it is not uncommon to hear people admonish the legal provision of funding for stem cell research, nor is it out of the ordinary when a Catholic bishop sends you mail to tell you how to vote.

Though I grew up in a discourse that included them, these impositions of religion on political views have struck me as increasingly absurd in the course of my two-plus years at Wash. U. Rational, classically-liberal notions—the utilitarian benefits of stem-cell research, the Lockean justification for the separation of church and state—have by now been ingrained in my ethos to such a degree that I am frequently tempted to regard them as universally correct. I am now convinced that any rational person would arrive at the notion that the morality dictated by religion has no place in our legislative actions—that any subjective morality about which reasonable people can disagree should not be written into law.

The free exchange of rational ideas toward ideal ends is, by definition, what higher education consists of. We inhabit a classroom environment of pervasive rationality, a place where consensus based on reason drives our views of the world. We have the tendency, I think, to believe that this consensus is the consensus, that a University-driven view of the world is legitimized simply by the intelligence of its derivation.

The problem with this environment is that rational conceptions of the moral and political world are not, in fact, universal. We forget, living here, that people are sometimes driven by something other than reason—that emotion and religiously-derived morality are often viewed as valid means of establishing one’s political compass.

It takes engaging with those who do not inhabit academia to realize this. Two summers ago, I volunteered in a phone bank for Jay Nixon’s gubernatorial campaign. The task entailed calling a variety of districts across Missouri, and when asked whether they planned on voting Democrat in the upcoming election, more than a few people responded—in no uncertain terms—that they could not vote for a party that did not support their God.

Views such as those rarely enter into the classroom, and we suffer from keeping in mind only what is in sight. Recently, Saint Louis University disinvited controversial pundit David Horowitz from speaking at an event sponsored by their College Republicans. To me, SLU’s revoking of Horowitz’s invitation is a travesty, not because I support Horowitz’s accusations of Islamo-fascism nor because I want to get behind his contention that women’s studies is not valid as a discipline, but precisely because I disagree with him. Horowitz’s ethos is fundamentally distinct from my own, and his views—which I think can be safely termed “radical”—are a reminder that a careful, academic consideration of all sides and an attempted empirical objectivity in policymaking are not the go-to approaches of the world.

This becomes especially pertinent in light of last weekend’s W.I.L.D. and the crowd’s seemingly-uncontested support for the Right Side of History. Though the implications of a movement toward equal rights for LGBT individuals strike many of us as obviously positive, and the support for such a policy initiative comes easily on this campus, we must remember that this backing is not unequivocally felt across the state or the country. It is precisely within this rupture, this disconnect in ethos, that there is work for us as University students—residents of a rationality-saturated environment—to accomplish. To properly employ the lessons of the classroom, we must engage in dialogue with those whose considerations, backgrounds and motivations differ from our own.

On multiple occasions I have fielded the complaint that we who study the humanities and social sciences are in college at the absolute wrong time in our lives—that we would be better suited to analyze literature having lived the experiences of which it tells, that it would be more worthwhile to examine the political and economic world having already worked as cogs within it. I think that this is true, but I would like to expand the idea. I think sometimes the university environment itself leads us to believe that rationality exists outside of us and does not lie within us, that we need not yet critique the world around us.

To not make tangible use of the rationality that a university setting imparts to us is a travesty. To disavow our well-financed human capital—to stray away from developing the powers of persuasion that can convince others of our perspectives—is equally shameful. The lessons of academia are void if not applied, and we must venture outside of the bubble to apply them.

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