Snapshot of Today’s Intellectual Climate

Snapshot of Today’s Intellectual Climate

The extraordinary events of 2020 have left many people wondering if we are living in a new era. Times of change and conflict like this often provoke people to ask philosophical questions.

So, as we consider this present time in which we live, I would invite you to consider two probing questions:

If our time is indeed distinct, how would you describe it? In other words, what significant ideas, beliefs, and values uniquely reflect our present cultural climate?

Interestingly, the Germans have a special philosophical term for such reflection: zeitgeist. It means “the spirit of the age.” Drawn from the German words zeit, meaning “time,” and geist, meaning “spirit,” it references what philosophers call the general intellectual, moral, and cultural atmosphere of a given time period.

One person who I think has good insight on the zeitgeist of our age is Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. I heard George give a lecture at Trinity Law School in Southern California a number of years ago. It was an honor to hear him lecture and get to ask him questions personally. In a time filled with diverse opinions and perspectives, I recommend him as a reliable scholar who writes carefully and candidly about cultural issues from a historic Christian worldview perspective.

What follows are three of George’s provocative insights on education, culture, and human nature that I think capture important aspects of today’s intellectual climate and debate. I then offer some brief clarifying comments. As you read these quotes see if you think whether George has put his finger on the key issues happening today. As well, ask yourself what your thoughts are on these subjects. I’ve used these engaging remarks to spark substantive philosophical discussion, especially on social media.

  1. Does college provide education or indoctrination?

“Why can’t people understand the difference—and the importance of the difference—between education (good) and indoctrination (bad)? This is NOT hard. It is not a ‘fine line.’ Teaching young people HOW to think (carefully, critically) is different from telling them WHAT to think.”1

Education is the pursuit and discovery of knowledge, truth, and wisdom through critical analysis. The goal of education is for the student to develop the ability to form an independent, reasonable judgment of the topics studied.

Indoctrination, on the other hand, can mean mere instruction in a given topic, but it often carries the pejorative meaning of instilling ideas in an uncritical manner. Indoctrination stands closer to propaganda than to education.

As George notes, a good education teaches students how to think rather than telling them what to think. Much of the debate in our culture today about identity politics (the controversial topics relating to race, sex, and class) stems from college campuses. But, generally speaking, are colleges today educating or indoctrinating?

An acceptable approach to learning acknowledges the challenge of human prejudice and bias and seeks to promote a reasonable open-mindedness, an evenhandedness, and a basic fairness when considering topics. But discovering genuine knowledge and truth about life and the world is seldom without controversy and disagreement among people. So when topics are divided between viable positions, a sound model of education exposes students to a fair-minded discussion of both sides (including pros and cons) of a controversial issue. Unfortunately, propaganda tends to be manipulatively one-sided in perspective.

2. What mentality characterizes this present cultural age?

“If the medieval period was ‘the Age of Faith,’ and the Enlightenment was ‘the Age of Reason,’ we live in ‘the Age of Feeling.’”2

Today’s zeitgeist generally places a heavy emphasis on how people feel about things. Some even define reality according to how something affects their emotional state (called “post-truth”). This feelings-oriented mindset is common in educational institutions today, such as where George teaches in the Ivy League’s Princeton University, which in turn influences the larger societal conversation.

Yet, while emotions are an important and healthy part of our humanity, subjective feelings must be tested by objective facts and reason.

  1. How is human depravity to be explained?

“Even if I didn’t believe in God, I would believe in Satan and hell. There is no word to describe the trafficking of children—thousands of them—into prostitution except ‘satanic.’ And surely hell awaits the people responsible for so damnable a crime.”3

While secularism appears to be growing, especially in the academic institutions of the Western world, there’s still a foundational biblical principle that is virtually impossible to deny. It is the moral depravity of humankind. The genuine evil encountered in the world and in humans means we live in a moral universe that cries out for justice. While the problem of evil has traditionally been seen as an argument against God’s existence, it may actually be powerful evidence for a God who demands justice.

Whether you accept or reject George’s perspectives, I think he has identified and explored some of the key issues that reflect our current cultural climate.

Reflections: Your Turn

What ideas do you think characterize our present cultural moment? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

  1. Robert P. George Tweet, @McCormickProf, 03/22/18.
  2. Robert P. George Tweet,‏ @McCormickProf, 09/10/17.
  3. Robert P. George Tweet, @McCormickProf, 06/09/19.