I passed by this ad on the way to work today. It took me a few moments to figure out what it was about, but then it came together: the ad is a reference to a scandal at the University of Illinois this year, in which trustees and high administrative officials pressured the admissions office to accept applicants from well-connected political families.

The ad stuck with me as I continued on my way. Perhaps this was because I have spent a good deal of time over the last week writing a couple of papers examining the role that the thinking of Immanuel Kant has played in shaping American higher education. We’ll get to the link between Kant’s thought and this ad in a second, but I need to explain a little bit about what I’ve been wrestling with.

Like other Enlightenment thinkers, Kant believed that man’s enemy was enslavement, that human beings yearned to be free. Freedom for Kant meant exercising one’s own will and reason, independent of any institutions or beliefs that might cloud one’s judgment. In this, Kant amplifies a central idea in Plato, who says that all education is really recollection: if we simply apply our clear reason, we can find the truth, which resides within our immortal soul.

For Kant, religious institutions are frequently a form of enslavement. They keep individuals from thinking for themselves, and teach them to behave out of a slavish adherence to tradition. For many of Kant’s intellectual inheritors, it is not only religious institutions, but religious ideas themselves, that become a problem. If science can explain the world better than religion, then to maintain “religious” ideas about the creation or miracles or history is blind to the facts and ultimately slavish. Religious ideas, and not only organized religion, are problematic.

All of this led to three fundamental postulates of secularism in the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries: 1) Religion should be separate from the political apparatus of the state; 2) Religion had no place in political discussions; 3) Religion would ultimately decline and become irrelevant to most people’s lives. At this point, while most people in western democracies would agree on point 1, there would be considerable disagreement over point 2, and there would be near uniform rejection of point 3 (religion hasn’t gone away). This has led some to argue that we are living in a postsecular age.

Now whether Kant himself would have argued for all three of these points is up for discussion, and more serious scholars of Kant and Enlightenment philosophy are welcome to weigh in. But one of the things that I think came about through the de-nuancing of Kant and Enlightenment philosophy was a cultural climate uncomfortable with notions of inherited identity, which are seen by (too) many to be yet another form of enslavement, keeping individuals from achieving their full uniqueness–which, after all, is the aim of life, right?

Saba Mahmood, author of a wonderfully insightful study called Politics of Piety, builds another narrative. She bases her theory on Aristotle and Foucault, and uses it to explain how Muslim women in Egypt have taken on pietistic forms of observance (in Jewish parlance we would say they’ve become ba’alot teshuva) in a way that is not demeaning to their sense of selfhood, but rather a fulfillment of it. “Tradition,” she writes, “is not a set of symbols and idioms that justify present practices, neither is it an unchanging set of cultural prescriptions that stand in contrast to what is changing, contemporary, or modern. Nor is it a historically fixed social structure. Rather, the past is the very ground through which the subjectivity and self-understanding of a tradition’s adherents are constituted.”

That is to say, when I eat the matzah on Passover; when I circumcise my son on the eighth day after his birth; when I recite the Shema in the morning or recite the Maariv prayer at night, all out of a sense of obligation, I am not giving up my agency or my autonomy–I am, rather, fulfilling it.

The assumption of the ad here is that it doesn’t matter who your daddy is. And while I believe that’s true, that each life is its own individual story, I also believe that it matters very much who your parents and grandparents were, what choices they made, what inheritance they left you, what stories they began for you. As the linking of the holidays of Passover and Shavuot teaches us, to be free does not mean only to throw off the yoke of enslavement–it also means embracing one’s story.

For too long, our colleges and universities have been focused on only the first half, teaching critical thinking and untying the knots of previous identities. For too long, they have let slip the essential second step, weaving a coherent sense of identity in the wake of the unweaving. I believe we are starting to turn a corner, and to find a way that identity can be not only about freedom from, but also about commitment to; not only about rejection of the determinism of the past, but also about embracing the truth of the story it bears.

Advertisements