Interview with Barry Bercier
author of The Skies of Babylon
Your book clearly has religious overtones. Even in its title,The Skies of Babylon, the reader is made aware of a certain scriptural context. And in the book you make a number of theological and scriptural arguments. But your subject is higher education in America's universities. Shouldn't you have limited your attention to a discussion of religiously affiliated universities?
No. The argument of the book applies to any university worth its salt. I want to say that education (the real thing, the kind of education that has its first beginning in a father and mother's up-bringing of their child) is shaped by the desire for the child's most perfect well-being and happiness. Parents want their children to 'become all they can be.' They don't want them to become people living in a state of incurable meaninglessness, in despair about the purposelessness of their lives. They don't want their children to grow up slaves to some technocratic system or blind to their own wonderful goodness. Parents don't want this for their children because they recognize an unspeakable goodness in their children from the moment they first enter this world. Parents grasp immediately and intuitively the splendor of the truth that is their own living child. They know the child's life has meaning because they see and feel the meaning he or she gives to their own lives. The child shows them a meaning and purpose beyond themselves, and so beyond the child, too. They want to raise the child in the light of that splendor and purpose and truth.
Maybe the parents don't belong to a religious tradition they can name, but what they are recognizing in their own new-born child is the most fundamental truth of the Bible, that man is made in the image and likeness of God. They see that image shining in their arms. They want to see that child, then, in all his goodness, to grow and develop, and if they shell out a hundred thousand dollars for his education at some top flight secular or state university, they don't expect that university to ignore, belittle or corrupt what is noblest in him.
So you're saying that secular and state universities should become religious.
No. What I'm saying is that they should continue the work of parents and serve the political order by cultivating their students into the fullness of their humanity. The university in America ought to be the bearer of American civilization, which is to say, of Western Civilization, and of the best that Western Civilization has produced or received. And I'm willing to say that the very best of what Western Civilization has received is its understanding of what it means to be human. The understanding we have from the ancient Greeks that man is rational, and the awareness we have from the Hebrew Scriptures that man is made in the image and likeness of God...these ideas establish the highest possible goal of an American education. They are the deepest root and the firmest rationale for our idea of freedom and human dignity and of the rights we invoke to protect and honor that freedom and dignity. If we forget what we are, we forget our dignity and the reason why we ought to be free. The university in America owes it to America to preserve the foundations of freedom. The universities have dropped the ball on exactly this matter.
But how can you say such a thing? The universities are obviously hothouses for freedom and for the development of rights. They discover as many rights as they do marketing techniques or astronomical theories, don't you think?
The universities are hothouses for the invention of all sorts of rights and of multiplying categories of individuals with claims to special rights. And they push for the recognition of those rights by government. When government follows their lead, multiplying rights boundlessly, then government has to multiply the laws and regulations required to enforce the protection of those rights, and lo and behold, freedom is strangled in the boundless tangle of laws and regulations that results. Tocqueville saw this possibility a long time ago. We should have listened closer to him.
It sounds like you're saying that the protection of human rights leads to the loss of freedom!
The idea of rights makes sense so long as it is inseparable from the idea of human dignity, from the understanding of what is required for "the greatness and happiness of man," as Tocqueville put it. We have rights only because there is a dignity to man that raises him somehow above and beyond the political will of any government. There is something so high and noble in the human person that government itself ought to bow before it. The self-restraint of government before the dignity of man-that is the very heart and substance of the idea of "human rights."
In the world before the rise of the West, rulers were taken as divine, and men were forced to worship the images of the powers that enslaved them. The Judeo-Christian tradition led to the reversal of all that-it taught government to bow to the image of God revealed in the men and women they ruled. This is the one source of rights compatible with freedom.
If human rights are taken only as the claims of individual appetite or individual desire or individual wish, off against the appetites, desires and wishes of other individuals, there is absolutely no limit to what they might claim except the claims of all the rest. And government ends up in the sorry business of establishing the ground rules for the pursuit of every passion under the sun. If boundless passion is the basis for rights, then boundless legislation is required to guarantee those rights. So you're correct: if the idea of rights is based not on a clear understanding of human dignity but on the promiscuous claims of individual appetite, then the protection of those rights leads to the loss of freedom. It may lead to the gratification of many appetites, but not to freedom, and not to any of the other higher desires either.