Over twenty-five years ago, in a speech at Saint Louis University, I focused on a too-little-noticed day in 1957, a turning point in American history: October 8, 1957. The day’s edition of New York’s major tabloid the Daily News bore two screaming headlines. The first announced the demise of the Russian satellite whose launch had shaken American self-confidence to its core: “Report Sputnik on Way Down.” The second declared the beginning of the end of an America that trusted its institutions: “It’s Final: Dodgers Go to L.A.” If the Dodgers could betray the good people of Brooklyn, no institution could be trusted.
A decade ago, a friend, the first in his family to go to college, told me that in the 1950s his father would respond to his youthful questions about issues of the day with a soothing assurance: “Don’t worry, son. They’re taking care of it for us.” We don’t say that to our children anymore.
In a way, skepticism about authority is a sign of maturity. The equanimity of the 1950s was built on hidden sins. And “they” were not always at work taking care of it—or at least not for all of us, or even for most of us. When that reality finally was unmasked, we were forced to confront our failures and the injustices they spawned. This process has been good for our society—but not good enough. To move beyond the sins of the past, we were called to a collective conversation about the measures required to create a just society worthy of a great and moral people. That conversation was begun, but it was never completed. So, skepticism about authority has metastasized into distrust—distrust of our government, our institutions, our leaders, and even our fellow citizens.
I wish this distrust really could be laid at the doorstep of Walter O’Malley, the devil who moved my Dodgers; if that were so, an easy solution might be at hand. In truth, the causes are more complicated. Over the last three generations, we have lost our sense of the common—a commonweal that binds us in a shared enterprise—and our sense of obligation to each other and to the coming generations. We once viewed our pluralism, at least in principle, as a strength of a welcoming society (e pluribus unum); today, many of us openly target our diversity as defining various “others,” different from us, who are dangerous.
Over these last sixty years, the world has become miniaturized. Dramatic advances in communication and transportation have shrunk time and space—literally. The very shape of the globe inherently forces a circle of interdependence on issues ranging from migration to climate change. The interdependence of economies is only a small part of it. As the global community confronts this reality, America, where a major harbor features the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of a commitment to pluralism, faces a test of that fundamental premise. No longer protected by the natural isolation created by ocean borders to the east and west, we are not doing well.
We now live in a balkanized society, with understanding in short supply. And this is so because the hard intellectual (and, it must be added, spiritual) work that is the necessary predicate of true understanding is absent. Indeed, just when we most need serious conversation on a range of very tough issues, we, as a society, have developed an allergy to nuance and complexity that devalues thought, knowledge, expertise, and understanding. Many, if not most, of us have retreated into political caves—homes of red and blue “faiths”—in which we are taught about the secular dogmas of our group. We then stand in union with “our people” against “theirs,” supporting policies that may be reasonable but certainly not reasoned.
I began to warn my colleagues in the academic world about this trend over two decades ago. Initially, as I played the role of Cassandra, my concern was that, if Americans continued to devalue complex public argument, they would inevitably devalue what our universities do—since the best universities are devoted to exploring complexity as a primary task. There are signs that this diminishment is already happening. A recent survey reported that 58 percent of Republicans say that universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, while just 36 percent say their effect is positive. Only two years ago, these numbers were reversed. The opinions of Democrats, although a bit less negative, are similar.
Our universities are indeed under siege. Still, I hold out hope that they can lead a reversal of the broad societal trend I have described by modeling robust conversation and revealing its benefits. Indeed, I believe universities can play a unique role in rebuilding the kind of discourse on which participatory democracy depends.
We have reached a fateful crossroads: If our universities do not serve as an antidote to the marginalization of seriousness in the public square, they will themselves be marginalized. If demagoguery is rewarded and mendacity becomes the coin of discourse, the lack of faith in society’s institutions will become still deeper and more pervasive, until at last society itself will crumble.
From Standing for Reason by John Sexton. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced by permission.
John Sexton is president emeritus, dean emeritus, and Benjamin Butler Professor of Law at New York University. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Baseball as a Road to God and Redefining the Supreme Court’s Role.