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  • Militarism and Morality
  • Daniel Gordon (bio)

John Mearsheimer’s Aims of Education address is admirably clear and energetic. When one pictures the ceremonious context in which it was delivered, it is easy to imagine its elevating effect on students. There is one theme in particular, developed in the early sections of the lecture, that is superb. I would call it the theme of combat. Here Mearsheimer, who is a military historian, portrays education as a vigorous form of competition requiring courage as well as intellect. In the section of the essay on the “Non-aims of Education,” however, Mearsheimer’s tone suddenly changes: he is no longer a trainer of youth emphasizing virtue; he is now an American social scientist reiterating the distinction between facts and values. It is the cold social scientist in Mearsheimer who refuses to admit moral discourse in the classroom. And it is Mearsheimer the social scientist, the author of works on military policy that are rigorously amoral and disturbingly unphilosophical, whom we must come to understand. Only then can we grasp all the implications, and shortcomings, of his conception of education.

In the beginning of his speech, Mearsheimer urges students to approach their education as a grand and courageous inquiry.

We don’t aim to produce graduates who have an instinct for the capillary, that is, individuals who ask rather trivial or small-minded questions. Instead, we aim to produce graduates who have an instinct for the jugular, that is, individuals who are constantly on the lookout for interesting and important puzzles regarding the world around them.

Such forceful language might raise some eyebrows. Mearsheimer, however, understands that it requires not only a sharp mind but also a hardy spirit to be a serious thinker. Like a sergeant confronting new recruits, he tells the students that they will be drilled—whether they like it or not—in the habits of intellectual integrity.

Sloppy arguments are guaranteed to get you in trouble here. For example, faulty logic in an argument is the kiss of death, as is lots of contradictory evidence. You can rest assured that others, including your fellow students, will pounce on any such flaws. . . . We urge you to ask big [End Page 186] questions, to challenge prevailing truths when you think they are wrong, and to offer your own views on important subjects. We want you to stand up when the time is right and say that the emperor has no clothes.

In this way, Mearsheimer suggests that education is not purely cognitive. It is also ethical, which is to say that it is for the sake of action (“We want you to stand up when the time is right . . .”). Ideas are not just a matter of solitary perception; they are the substance of life’s great contests; and it often requires a good measure of self-esteem and bravery to be able to express one’s ideas in the open.

Mearsheimer has a talent for portraying the intellectual life in terms of valor. Yet, he later discusses “the pursuit of truth” as if it were a purely cognitive activity. He describes the university as an “amoral” institution because it is devoted to the production of knowledge. He even informs students that they should not expect to “discuss ethics or morality in any detail” in their classes. Moreover, in a brief history of American universities highly reminiscent of Comte’s theory of the evolution of culture from religion to positivism, Mearsheimer makes it clear that he sees moral discourse as an outdated residue of theology—something that has no place in the modern university.

Now, what is particularly interesting about this section of the lecture is that the social and agonistic dimensions of thought, which Mearsheimer stressed in the beginning, have disappeared. The university now appears to be a locus of consensus—as when Mearsheimer suggests that all professors at the University of Chicago agree that morality has no place in higher education. Several routes of criticism become possible at this point. One might begin by noting that Mearsheimer exaggerates the degree of moral indifference of Chicago professors. But it is perhaps of greater importance to stress that he exaggerates the moral indifference...

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pp. 186-192
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