The Condition of Western Civilization: A Conversation with Harvey Mansfield

Interview with Harvey Mansfield

Thinking in Public

September 26, 2011

(This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)

This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line

theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your

host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

What would the world look like on the campus of Harvard College? What would the world look like from tenure of over a half century on the faculty of Harvard University? That kind of question brings a conversation that would be worth having and it just so happens that’s the kind of conversation we get to have today.

Mohler: Harvey C. Mansfield is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University. He studies there and teaches political philosophy. He has written on figures such as Edmund Burke and Machiavelli. He has written a number of works and has received awards including a National Humanities Medal from the President of the United States. As Professor Mansfield says, he has hardly left Harvard since his arrival in 1949 and next year will mark his 50th anniversary on the faculty of that institution.

Professor Mansfield, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Mansfield: Thanks, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Mohler: Well, I have looked forward to this conversation and in particular to a conversation about the state, or perhaps we might even say the soul of education in America. You have been in a very privileged position, indeed as you say you have hardly left Harvard since nineteen forty-nine. I cannot imagine a figure who is better-positioned to tell us what is really going on in American Education in general and, for instance, very specifically at Harvard University at the institutions at the most elite level of education in America.

Mansfield: Thank you very much. I like the word that you used, “soul”, because I think that education is really the soul of our country. It’s shown in our Constitution which gives us a guide and construction in which we act, but it’s our education that determines how we think and perhaps how we act as well. The view from Harvard is rather complacent. So, if you want the view from Harvard don’t ask me. I disagree with most of my colleagues in the direction of American education. I supposed you could divide it into higher education and the rest. High school and elementary school is, I think, dominated by the notion of self-esteem. Our students are taught to find something to love that is in themselves and not so much taught to earn that esteem. I think our education below the university level is much too soft and easy. We should be more demanding of our children. Not partly in the way of discipline which is important, but still more in the way of the intellect.

And when it comes to higher education and to Harvard I think the same troubles can be found. They too believe in something like self-esteem or political correctness which is their way of behaving and confining our education to a certain range of issues that one finds raised mainly or only on the left, even the far left: Race, class and gender. This is based on thinking which is quite obsolete, perhaps dates from the 1930’s or even before and derives from Karl Marx although you rarely hear that name anymore. Still, his ideas are still very strong in America’s universities, somewhat modernized, of course. And so, this political correctness keeps our college students from hearing a range of discussions in politics that is anywhere near comparable to what the ordinary American citizen hears and what one can find or hear in Washington, D.C. There’s the range of opinion at Harvard in which one hears expressed, it is very much narrower than even theCambridgeCity council or Massachusetts State House, both of which are one party institutions; but compares very poorly with the very strong and vital discussion that we get in Washington. So I would like to see something done about our political correctness that serving a strong point.

Another point is that Harvard’s education has weakened the cultivation of the mind. I think college education should have two general aims. One is to make us good citizens and the other is to make us good persons, good people. The second has to do with the cultivation of various virtues and talents, and especially the cultivation of the mind. The first has to do with those principles of American politics and democratic self government that we practice and need to be taught to appreciate.

Mohler: Yes, in your Bradley lecture that you gave I believe earlier this year you said about Harvard, you can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much, as you were kind of repeating some of the old jokes about Harvard. But then you said, in my time there, Old Harvard, a place of tradition with its prejudices has become New Harvard, a place of prestige with its prejudices. What’s the difference? You asked the question. I’d love to hear you answer it.

Mansfield: The old Harvard with its prejudice would be the Harvard of Gentlemen C’s. It has certain virtues, for example, Franklin D. Roosevelt was a Gentleman C scholar at Harvard awhile ago, and there was a sense of responsibility and of reliability that was imbued in Harvard students in the, say, first half of the 20th century. But then after that it was, and those people had their prejudices too which was a certain narrowness of outlook, and the fact that Harvard was not open to talented people of all kinds, of sexes and we had very few blacks and very few Jews. So under the new Harvard that kind of feeling has been corrected, but on the other hand we’ve lost the sense of responsibility that the older Harvard had. In the sense that when you go to college you want to learn what makes you self-reliant and makes you knowing of some of our most fundamental principles. So the new prejudices have to do with the political correctness that I mentioned a moment ago and with the kind of post-modern relativism which sees all goals or human activities as equal, whether good or bad, there being no way to say that some action is good and some action is bad. Therefore one is free to choose and there is no guidance by which one can choose. So that kind of relativism easily goes with the loss with the sense that one has duty to one’s country and one’s self and to God or to any higher principles that transcend oneself. It’s as if one’s guidance came simply from oneself and that there was nothing outside or above that should command our attention.

Mohler: So the average American high school student who, right now, has as his or her greatest aspiration to achieve admission into Harvard University whose parents are encouraging that kind of aspiration, should, and very few will, very few who apply will receive that admission, but should they receive that prize, what in terms of education would they actually receive if they become students at Harvard College?

Mansfield: A very chancy education. It all depends on the prudence and care with which a student chooses. The principle at Harvard, by the way this is not just peculiar to Harvard, it’s true of all, at least most prestigious universities, they are all pretty much the same. When a student arrives at Harvard, he is faced with a fat catalogue. Well it’s not printed anymore, it’s online, but a catalogue, a confusing number of courses on specialized topics with funny titles that don’t or shouldn’t make sense. And he’s sort of in a quandary as to what to do. There are very few requirements even for majors and where there are requirements then the student gets a choice as to which course to take to satisfy it. So it can be very chancy. One mistake that many students make when they arrive is to take courses in subjects of the day like climate change. I was talking to a new student the other day and he said he was taking a course on global climate change. That’s not a proper subject for a course for undergraduates or for freshman anyway. You should be studying some of the classics, some of the enduring things, some of the books that have lasted for a couple of millennia and which deserve our attention and our careful study.

Mohler: You have written, it’s quite surprisingly I would say, unless one is aware of your agenda here, that Nietzsche is the most indispensible philosopher of our time. And speaking of Nietzsche you identified Nietzsche as the fountain or the catalyst for our modern crisis of thinking, a crisis of liberal thought. Would you explain that a bit further?

Mansfield Yes, I don’t recommend falling in love with Nietzsche. I always tell my students that this is someone whom you will like probably much more than you ought to. But he makes a wonderful diagnosis of the crisis of our time and of the last. But his solutions are not to be recommended. He wrote in the late 19th century – the 1880’s up to almost the 20th century, the 1880’s and 1090’s. But he seemed to see the whole century that lay before him. What he thought that was so important was that, liberalism, or western principles were being consumed by self-doubt. We no longer believe in the principles of liberty or of progress, or reason. And we are stymied by our relativism which I mentioned before.

Mohler: Yes.

Mansfield: And that is relativism says there is nothing worth striving for, certainly there is nothing worth dying for. And that means that it is up to you but there is no guidance for you, so you are just in the situation that I described of the Harvard students who arrive here and see what there is. Nietzsche called this situation, or our situation nihilism in which he defined as nothing is true, everything is permitted. So if nothing is true, then nothing is right or wrong, and everything is permitted, you can see what a dangerous principle that is.

Mohler: Well indeed, and if we establish liberalism, in the classic western sense, is that which in the United States would encompass both political liberals and political conservatives, established in the notion of the individual, and of liberty. You make the point that Nietzsche and nihilism is socially relativized the very principles upon which liberalism is made possible.

Mansfield: Well, that’s right. That’s just what it is. And so it didn’t refute them, but it just more or less asserted that none of them can be proved. As if it were just a human life to be free or a slave. So all of the things that one thinks that one can take for granted, according to Nietzsche, and he has had a tremendous influence on the rest of us, are open to the same questions. And because nothing is true and one hears that from every American student coming out of high school. It’s what they arrive with. I see them as here as freshmen.

Mohler: Professor Mansfield understands that education is not merely about the transmission of data. It is not only about the matter of the development of the minds. It also about that word that word we use so carefully, the soul. It is about a person, a person who is a learner, a person who is a political actor; a person who is also in a very interesting developmental period during those university years. And a person is going to emerge having had that experience in the college university campus as a person changed by that experience.

One of the most troubling issues of the conversation with Professor Mansfield has to do with the loss of confidence in any enduring principles in terms of the major elite institutions of American educational life. It’s not by accident that Professor Mansfield speaks with such authority on this as he has spent more than half a century on the campus of Harvard University. And as he speaks of the Harvard of old and compares it with the Harvard now, it is a place where one set of prejudices has replaced another older set of prejudices. The biggest problem I see is that whether you call the umbrella term of this era and its formulas and ways of thinking its habits of the mind as post-modernism. The realities are that the modern liberal experiment is falling in on itself, because of its abrasive relativism and utter subjectivism, even as we shall see in nihilism, well, it undermines the very structures that are necessary to sustain that kind of experiment.

Professor Mansfield is a man whose learning has been primarily invested in political philosophy. He speaks with that kind of background and with the knowledge that human beings have created societies and sustained them. But he also understands that there is a very important issue at stake in the process of education that has to do not only with how people act; but first of all, with how they think. And that also depends upon what they know.

In a recent book Professor Mansfield argued that today the very word manhood seems quaint and obsolete. He went on to say we are in the process of making the English language gender-neutral. And manliness, the quality of one gender, or rather of one sex, seems to describe the essence of the enemy we are attacking, the evil we are eradicating.

Professor Mansfield, when you wrote this book on manliness, you had to know that you were taking on not only the battlements of contemporary gender studies, but almost the entire edifice of the entire modern university complex.

Mansfield: Well that’s right. I was, perhaps, I didn’t quite realize the extent of it. This was five years ago;I don’t think that the situation has changed very much since then. My book got a lot of notice; most of it adverse when it came out in 2006.

Mohler: You expect part of that, certainly, and to that degree you are a controversialist in the best sense of the word; you are willing to take on these issues. I think however that many of your critics didn’t actually read the book. And I was struck, even when the book came out, by the fact that there was tremendous outrage that you would write a book on this topic, much less with this title. And make an argument for an essential objective difference between the two sexes, that you were not arguing that society should be prejudiced in one particular direction or another when it comes to its public life. But you were relying on a very important distinction between public and private life. What in the world happened to that distinction in the modern cultural experiment?

Mansfield: Well, it was one of the central tenets of feminism that the personal is the political. So that is a denial of a distinction between public and private life. Yes, I think that our solution, we have in a way, but we just don’t formulate it, and express it to ourselves. That is that men and women should be equal in public spaces and at work, in business, careers and jobs. But in private we should feel free to act otherwise. There is every reason to believe that there are important differences between sexes and those continue. And everybody knows about them, but our society and our dominant opinions are in denial as to our existence. And so nobody read the major part of my book, it was just the first two chapters they read where I tried to establish that there was a difference between men and women using some of the findings in science and evolutionary biology and social psychology. And I didn’t get into neuroscience, but you can find it there too. As well as literary sources like Tarzan and Ernest Hemingway which tell us and show us what the pluses and the minuses of the two sexes are. I never argued that manliness was the only virtue or even a virtue by itself. But it was enough to say that there might be just such a thing to attract all the adverse comment.

Mohler: What you said Betty Friedan famously said almost half a century ago now that the home was a domestic concentration camp for women. And you had figures such as Gloria Steinem saying a woman needs a husband like a fish needs a bicycle. And since she eventually got married, I guess that fish needed a bicycle.

But none-the-less when you look at your argument, it’s the honesty and I guess as a political philosopher, I was reading you as a political philosopher; I was impressed by the politic you understood was going on here. And the fundamental reality that is part of what it means to be human, for instance in the book you mentioned several things, such as that even the liberals in the modern sense of the word, the feminist who are arguing against the differences of men and women, end up in their own relationships living them out.

Mansfield: Yes, they do, they deny by their actions what they say in their words. So in most marriages for example, most women do most of the housework, men do less, and men bring home most of the income and women bring in less. And that has continued the ancient difference between men and women. Men are in the department of foreign affairs, outside the home, and women are ministers of interior, inside it. The way in which we do this and the things that we do, and the amount of time that we spend doing these different activities is not the same, but the general idea is recognizable by everyone.

And by the way, if women really wanted men to do the housework, they might get a result they don’t want which is men claiming to govern or rule or decide half of what goes on in the house, especially the question of, what makes a clean house. I think that most women want to be able to define that.

Mohler: I think that is a fundamental reality you have well identified. And in your book you make this observation which I have long remembered, you said that men reject and resist the expectation that they should abandon their manliness. They do not so much mind sharing their traditional opportunities with whoever can exploit them, and they have found newfound respect for the women who can, but they draw the line at doing what women have left behind. And think that is a very keen observation, and my guess is that that is behind such efforts as even President Obama making public comments about the fact that men need to do more housework. Or for that matter, the current socialist government of Spain trying to legislate it with criminal penalties.

Mansfield: Yes, that’s really a hopeless task. Well then, the situation has changed, and I think that men do more work around the house than they used to. But they still do more or less the same things. They do the outside work: they carry the trash and so on, do the heavy lifting, sometimes the dishes. I always think that the person who makes the meals shouldn’t also have to clean up afterwards. Personally, that is one of my compromises, but the difference remains; and I think will remain.

Mohler: Well in your book you make the argument; by the time you reach the conclusion, as I followed through your argument that at the end of the day there should be this distinction between the public and private. And you really speak to both conservatives and liberals in our current context of political discussion in suggesting that the state ought to have an interest to equal access to opportunity regardless of sex or gender. But on the other hand the culture, the society has to respect that in the private domain these persistent patterns that are very attributed to manliness and perhaps to its opposite and twin, womanliness, that are simply going to endure, and the state, the polis has an investment in seeing that such virtues that makes those things possible endure.

Mansfield: Yes, that’s true we need conventions, some people think that we don’t need conventions and that we can make everything up for ourselves, but we can’t. We need to have conventions which create expectations, so if you’re a man or you’re a woman there should be expectations that go with that sex and that you know what you are expected to do. Otherwise the lazier of the two sexes, or the more oblivious, both of those are the male sex, I would say, will get away with murder. Or with other lesser offenses and it is very damaging to us. And we have blank slate in front of us, and we have no obligation except for those that we choose to take for ourselves. That I think is a very difficult moral principle to live by successfully.

Mohler: Let me ask you to look at the larger global scene for a moment. I am very interested as this year marks the 10th anniversary of the 9/11/2001 terror attacks on the United States. As our moral vocabulary and even our international perspective has changed so much over the last decade. How do you place the United States and our experiment in ordered liberty in the historical context of the early 21st century, what are the prospects for this kind of experiment as you look to the future?

Mansfield: I’m optimistic for America. I think we got a very good start. It’s true all we got from our founders was a start. They got us going in the right direction as an ordered liberty; I think that’s a good way to put it, with the practices and the constitution of self government. So they gave us a good start, but it is a start that doesn’t automatically renew itself. It’s up to each generation that follows to discover those principles and to apply them intelligently. And I think that America had a pretty good record in the 20th century. Just look at our foreign policy and just look at the way we came to the fore in the world and ended up as leaders of the free world coming to the rescue of Europe three times, if you count the Cold War, yes, let’s make it three times. I think that is a record of recent success and it’s up to us to continue it. We have all kinds of problems, we have disputes, we have misunderstandings, and we have setbacks. But none of those so far have shown to be profoundly harmful. I do think that we are now coming to a crisis with the discovery that the welfare state is too expensive. We voted for ourselves government benefits that we don’t really want to pay for and I think that the American people are gradually coming to the realization. And what they will decide to do will be very interesting. I think that the next presidential election will be very a critical one.

Mohler: I am fascinated by the tenure that you have experienced there at Harvard University over the process of decade after decade. Your father was a very well-known and respected professor at both Yale and Columbia Universities. You’ve spent an entire lifetime, in terms of your adult life, in a very honored place in academia. Looking back over your lifetime just reflect with me for a moment, in terms of life of scholarship, what have been its rewards and how do you now look back on this life of investment and learning.

Mansfield: I look back with some satisfaction. I think that some of my work was good. And also some dissatisfaction, I wish that I had done more. That’s for myself personally. I think that I have progressed somewhat in understanding since I was young to now. And I don’t think that I’ve begun my decline. But maybe I’m too optimistic on that. But one of my major satisfactions, it’s not so much my work. It’s the students I’ve had. Harvard has very good students. People come to Harvard for the other people who come to Harvard. That’s what most people say, that the best thing about Harvard is the other students that you’ll get to meet and know. Not so much the faculty or the big name or the prestige. And I’ve certainly tried to take advantage of the high quality of Harvard students over the years both undergraduate and graduate.

Mohler: Well, it’s often said that great students make great professors, and that is certainly what most professors would recognize. And there are many students whose lives you’ve touched and far beyond that – persons who have read your books, been influenced by your contribution to this culture and to our public life and now to Thinking in Public. I want to thank you for being my guest today.

Mansfield: Thanks that was very kind of you to say.

Mohler: At the conclusion of his book Manliness, Professor Mansfield writes, “A free society cannot survive if we are so free that nothing is expected of us.” I think that’s a very key insight. It’s the kind of insight that reminds us that there is always a moral truth behind a political principle or even an historical insight. And in this case Professor Mansfield’s writing very, very strategically about the collapse of a society, or the weakening of a society, if indeed that distinction between the public and the private is so irradiated, that indeed we are to now have our private lives ruled by the confusions of a post-modern morality.

The very title of his book Manliness was indeed a manly choice. And we recognize that even as we look at the title and the cover of his book that manliness is an indispensible virtue. As Professor Mansfield said, it’s not the only virtue. I also appreciated the very courage that he demonstrated by speaking of his time at Harvard and of his role as a political thinker and as a professor and a member of that faculty, a teacher of the students who come. I think that Professor Mansfield gives us a lot to think about there. And especially appreciate how he ended speaking of the honor of being a teacher, and of his experience of investing himself and his life in students. And that’s a key insight that reminds us that education if far more than transmission of knowledge; it is also the sustaining of a relationship.

The issues raised by political philosophy are as old as human kind at least as old as the human experience east of Eden. Where human beings then congregate, we have a political reality that requires some kind of very careful thinking and of course a lot of ongoing negotiating. Eventually it also produces reflection on how it is that human beings actually do this. How we do relate to one another in a process that, well like it or not, is essentially political.

Professor Harvey Mansfield reminds us that the political is never merely the political. There is always a cultural and moral issue behind it, a reality that is beyond the political. But at the end of the day, I think one of the reasons why political philosophy is a continuing interest of intellectual focus for so many is because we get to actually think about how human beings act. How they act in public. How indeed public issues reveal the human character, reveal virtue, or the lack of virtue. Reveal what does and does not work. But also reveals how ideas do in this very particular sense, rule the world. Good ideas and bad ideas, ideas that honor human dignity and human liberty and ideas that are subversive to human dignity and human liberty. Now that is the proper area for political theorist or a political philosopher to direct his or her thinking. But it is also a particular interest where Christians have to do some very, very careful thinking. After all we have to be those who will remind ourselves that to be political is in this sense to recognize that we are made in the image of God. That God made us in His image as creatures who are able to think through these issues. Who are able to create society; who indeed have the moral consciousness, the conscience that God has given and gifted to his human creatures.

But we’re also the people to understand that in a Genesis 3 world, in a fallen world, politics can never deliver on its promises. Human political promises can never live up to the highest human aspirations. It is because of at the end of the day whenever you put human beings together, you are not only putting humans together, you are putting sinful, self-interested human beings together. You are putting finite human beings together of limited knowledge. You are putting people together that may hope for and dream of utopian realities, but can never ever achieve them. But one of the sad realities of the 20th century is the reminder that there are those who are willing to sacrifice humanity in the service of trying to serve some kind of hoped for utopia.

Professor Mansfield talked about many things in the course of this conversation, but when it comes to, for instance the conversation of American higher education; I think it is important for us to realize that as Christians we are the ones who have to come back again and again to recognize that education is inherently moral. It is always about the inculcation of certain knowledge, and certain affirmations, certain habits of mind that become habits of the heart, that become habits of life. In other words the decision about education and the multiple almost infinite decisions of value in fact made during the course of education shape the individual who will come out on the other side, and of course not as a finished project but as a learner in motion. But let’s never minimize what takes place during the college years.

During the years a young person spends on the college university campus, the most fundamental issues of life are directly confronted for the first time. And fundamental decisions are made that are far more difficult to unmake later in life. And for that reason the political choices we make are important, the personal choices we make are important, and among those are the educational choices that we make as well. The stewardship of education is a very, very important thing. And one of the realities I really appreciate that came out in the conversation with Professor Mansfield is when he said that an education for a young person arriving at Harvard can be an iffy thing. It’s one thing if that young person takes advantage of the massive investment of learning that is represented by that university over its centuries of existence, now over 400 years of existence, it’s quite a different thing. If indeed that young person takes all the trendy courses, by the trendy professors and can end up with a degree, but without a real education. Of course that’s not just true of Harvard, it’s true of virtually any elite institution of American educational life and is true that we need to recognize that almost every college and university in America aspires to identify with that which is represented by Harvard, and Yale, and Columbia, and Princeton and the ivy league, the University of Chicago and Stanford and the other elite universities and academic institutions.

The outsized influenced of these elite institutions filters down throughout the entire culture of American higher education. So problems that are most acute right now on the campuses of Harvard and Yale and elsewhere are going to show up in a delayed sense as something of a delayed fuse on other colleges and university campuses as well.

In some of his writings Professor Mansfield for instance deals with the political theory of John Rayls. Whose theory of justice was especially popular among political liberals back in the 1970’s and the 1980’s. Well without going into detail of that theory I think it is very important to recognize that there is something of a filtering down that is just now hitting a lot of other colleges and universities. Where a lot of conversations right now about justice are influenced by theories that we’re, well a generation ago, au courantand absolutely dominant on a college campus such as Harvard, but not so much now. And there is the recognition that the influence of an institution like that is simply massive. But so is the power of a teacher. And so looking at the individual life of Harvey Mansfield is just a reminder to us that spending a long period of years, a tenure in an institution such as that, a college large or small, a college elite or unknown, as a massive, massive power upon those one has the honor and opportunity to teach.

The relationship between a teacher and a student is one of most powerful relationships known on this planet. It goes all the way back to of course the biblical picture of learning that takes place, it goes back to the Greco-Roman experience of education, it goes back to the picture of, for instance, Alexander the Great studying with Aristotle and it goes all the way down right now to the classroom where there is a teacher and there are students and there is not only a class and a lecturer there is a relationship and an influence that is being shared.

I appreciate the focus of Harvey Mansfield’s writing, and I look forward to as he has new books come out. I appreciate the fact that here again is a mind in motion and a mind that is very much still at work. When we think about the gender issues and we think about the manliness that he in such a courageous and brave way wrote about in recent years, Christians need to think about the reality that we understand this not only in terms of literature and social theory and political theory but most importantly in a biblical worldview that tells us that this is not only about what will lead to human flourishing but the very important Christian understanding. That God has created patterns of life for His creatures. He has inculcated in His creatures certain visions and virtues that are not only those which bring Him glory but also bring us the greatest human happiness and human flourishing. One of the most important things we can remember in the midst of any kind of confusion over these issues is that Christians are the ones who understand that which brings God greatest glory is simultaneously and for that very reason is that which leads to the greatest flourishing and true human happiness. That’s what we can add to this conversation, a privileged conversation worth having with Professor Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University.

I want to invite to a conference taking place on the campus of Southern Seminary on September 26 and 27. The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies is hosting Baptist and War, a conference designed to help Christians consider how we should think about war in theological and historical and theological perspective, for more information visit

Thanks for joining me for Thinking in Public, until next time keep thinking, I’m Albert Mohler.