John Sexton

The University and Civil Discourse, Part I

VTR Date: November 9, 2006

John Sexton discusses dogmatism Vs. civil discourse.


GUEST: Dr. John Sexton
VTR: 11/09/2006

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And whenever I introduce today’s guest I refer to what he himself calls “the two worlds that have been central to his life – the world of faith and the world of learning.”

For John Sexton was raised in Brooklyn in a cauldron of Irish Catholicism, educated by Jesuits at Fordham, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in history, his Masters in comparative literature, and his Ph.D. in the history of American religion.

Now my guest also graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, was Law Clerk at the Supreme Court of the United States to Chief Justice Warren Burger, and later Dean of New York University’s prestigious law school.

Now he is the President of NYU… having indeed led a life devoted both to the world of faith and to the world of the learning.

Last time, my guest and I talked about an address of his titled “Dogmatism versus Civil Discourse”…and today I want President Sexton to elaborate on the thought he expressed then that “…pervasively in our society there’s this appetite for simplicity and an allergy to nuance and complexity”. John, elaborate on that for us.

SEXTON: Well it seems to me that what’s, what’s happening is a broad trend, is a growth of what I call in the piece, “dogmatism.” But, but it’s dogmatism of two types and they’re easily confused and I think it’s useful to separate them.

The first is the much noted growth of dogmatism as religious fundamentalism. And, and there’s no question that in our society as you look back over the last twenty years or so that religious fundamentalism has become more part of the political landscape and therefore the discourse landscape, than it was before.

So, so there are certain show-stoppers in, in conversation. You know if you’re dealing with a person who believes that the world is 6,000 years old and that that is a “Revealed Truth”, capital “R”, capital “T”, there’s not a lot you can say if … in a conversation about archeology or, or ancient society that goes outside that box. You start talking about the cave paintings of Altamira and you say they … that they are … and you can’t go outside the 6,000 year envelope. Okay.

So that’s a certain kind of dogmatism which has been brought into the religious sphere. In an interesting way because typically we think, especially viewed through the lens of, of American and First Amendment jurisprudence, the way you and I have talked about the Constitution before with the religion clauses … separation of church and state.

Typically you think of religions at war with each other. But, but, you know, coming out of this, what I’ll call theological dogmatism … you have the statement, you know, by the head of the Southern Baptists that he has more in common with the Pope than he does with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, two of his, you know, putative congregants.

And, and the, the unity is a social agenda marked by these conversation stoppers, so a kind of theological dogmatism. That’s been noted by a lot of people. I see another kind of dogmatism, more widely spread and, in some ways much more pernicious. And, and that … and here I use the religious word “dogmatism” deliberately to evoke a way of thought.

That is a product of a lot of complex forces, but the punch line is, it is characterized by the same kind of conversation stopping moment. So, so … here, put broadly and we can unpack this if you want, but put broadly it’s the fact that … nuance and complexity are, are intolerable.

Simple answers … I’m tempted to say simple-minded answers, slogans are the coin of the realm. And there are a lot factors in our society ranging from the, the kind of lack of attention span of a hyper-stimulated society to, to the lack of belief in a hierarchy of thoughts or ideas that comes from … what I call the surfeit of, of information we now have at our disposal.

I mean, I mean T.S. Eliot for heaven sakes, you know, said, said “Where is the wisdom we have lost to knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost to information?” And he said that decades ago.

So there’s a set of factors, I’ve just mentioned two to tease you a bit. But there are a set of factors that, that lead to a kind of dogmatism as, as an intellectual attitude.

Not now theologically based, but just … in, in a way … epistemologically based. It’s, it’s a way of thinking. And that kind of dogmatism, it seems to me, has become widespread in our society.

Much more than, much more than the theological dogmatism. And, and that poses a danger because of its widespreadedness and its implications, which is in some ways … not to pun … a more fundamental danger than fundamentalism.

HEFFNER: John are you going to shock me and say that even the University is not immune to this movement to simplicity?

SEXTON: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I, I try as best I can to shock you, it’s part of the basis of our friendship.


SEXTON: But, but … I, I actually see the university as implicated directly in these broad trends that come together.

HEFFNER: You mean as a causative agent?

SEXTON: Not as a causative agent at all, but as part of, part of the solution. This is not to say that the university is immune from these trends. So, the bait that you put out there I will accept and I will say that inside the university these, these trends play out, especially the second trend.

There, there are, even inside the universities those who are prone to introducing conversation stoppers and we can talk about that in a moment … but the large point I make is, is not that.

The large point I make is the following. Universities … are the last, best hope. Universities by their nature deal in complexity and nuance. You know there are 85 institutions in the world that exist today in the same institutional form that they existed 500 years ago.

Now, I know you could just, given your huge reservoir of knowledge … you could probably … you, you …

HEFFNER: Now who’s kidding whom?

SEXTON: (Laughter) But you’d name the Parliament, you’d name the Vatican … you probably even know that there are 8 Cantons in Switzerland. So that’s 10 of the 85. 70 of the remaining 75 institutions that exist today institutionally as they did 500 years ago are universities.

HEFFNER: But John, what goes on inside of them?

SEXTON: That’s … well that’s the point. And, and … because there’s something there. That data point I just gave you says there’s something about universities that, that is causing them to perdure in this almost unique way. So, so what is it?

It, it’s that they deal in the coin that makes us human. That sets us apart. They deal in the advancement of thought. The advancement of knowledge. The advancement of ideas. And, and that means that they deal in nuance and complexity.

So they are the last, best hope. But they, they … they have to be willing to engage externally this trend that I’ve identified towards an allergy to nuance and complexity. A yearning for slogan and simplicity. And, and they have to kind of model out to society a way of having a conversation.

My second and related point is that if they don’t do that, then the general marginalization of seriousness that’s going on in society will end up in universities themselves being devalued and, and, and suffocated.

Now that having been said … that I think they … our universities are the last, best hope as an antidote to this very dangerous trend in our society. They are not, even in their internal discourse … always exemplars of the ideal of the university.

Now, of course, you and I know the effects of Original Sin … you know, concupiscence, condemn all humans and, and all human institutions to being less than perfect.

Now, you also know from our previous conversations that I view that as tremendously liberating. Because I’m not, I’m not then to be judged by a norm of perfection; I’m to be judged by whether or not I’m moving more and more forward.

Our universities today, especially American universities are the envy of the world in terms of the rigor of thought that goes on within them. That explains the tremendous willingness of the students and faculty around the world to be engaged with us. But they are not perfect.

And one of the ways in which they’re not perfect is that they, they haven’t engaged sufficiently as agents to redress this broad trend. Another is, as you try to bait me to say and now I’ll say it, having said the predicate for it; that inside universities there’s, there’s no question that there, there are some who would stop the conversation at a certain point because they’re captured in, you know, what, what is not usually a, a theologically derived religiosity, but sometimes can be equally as powerful as a preventative to iterative conversation. “You know, let me take your idea beyond where you’ve placed it.” And, and we have to be very vigilant inside universities about, about that trend.

We also have to be vigilant inside universities however against an even more pernicious and even more prevalent trend and that is the attempt, by those outside of the university, to rob the university of the rigor and the commitment to discourse and questioning orthodoxy that is the dominant theme of the great universities of this country.

HEFFNER: Explain that? What are those efforts?


HEFFNER: I’m a little puzzled by that.

SEXTON: We’re, we’re … now, now … look I’m, I’m aware of, of the fact that, that we’re … I’m talking to a person that goes back, you know, into the …

HEFFNER: Don’t say I’m an old man.

SEXTON: No, no, I’m not saying you’re an old man … but …goes back into the, the Murrow period. I mean you, you dealt with this in, in moments fifty years ago, when I could say if I were to look to another period in time when, when free inquiry and questioning orthodoxy were most in danger, we would ark to that time. So, but let me …

HEFFNER: Are you comparing … are you saying that things are going on …

SEXTON: Oh, it’s …

HEFFNER: … now?

SEXTON: … well, well, first of all … let me say this. There is in society an ideologically neutral, but, but potentially devastating attention to short term results.


SEXTON: And, and you see this all over. And it has in it the seeds, if it grows, of potentially destroying the strength of our universities. The great theologian Jaraslov Pelican of Yale tells a story in, in his book, The Idea of a University, A Reexamination …

HEFFNER: John Henry Cardinal Newman …

SEXTON: That’s right and it’s a dialogue with Newman 100 years later. And this great theologian writes and in it he talks about this trend which he noted and he wrote that book 15 years ago, which, which he noted beginning and he points to the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica on which he was weaned. And he says, “I still have in my home, even though I’m now on the Editorial Board of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which when he was writing, I think, was in its 15th edition, the leather bound 11th edition that my Dad gave to me.” And he notes that there were in the 11th edition nine folio columns under Delian League and two paragraphs on uranium. And the two paragraphs on uranium said, essentially … “study of this element is, is worthless and only of interest to those who are interested in the arcane.”

And he puts that out as a causation to those who would judge the, the idea output of the great thought centers that our universities, on short term basis and strict utilitarianism … I mean he says, “Be careful about that because if such normative judgments had been made back when the 11th edition … then you would have cut off all funding for the, the study of … but that, you know, that, that’s part of it, and that’s, that’s reflected … you know … this past year … for the first time in memory … funding for the National Science Foundation was, was cut. And, and, Richard, there … you know, you and I are lovers of the humanities … you know, and, and there’s virtually no funding out there for the humanities.

I was, I was at a conference, a very small conference convened by Margaret Spellings, the Commissioner of Education, and Condelezza Rice. And President Bush appeared before us, 50 university and college Presidents, you know, going down to the State Department for three days of conversation. And, and he announced his, his language initiative. His language initiative. $115 million in his language initiative. Then you listen to him talk and it was essentially a program designed so that we would have enough people that could read Osama Bin Laden’s E-mails. I said, “Where’s the money for Greek and Latin.”

No, no I’m not saying we shouldn’t be spending money on security and defense and so forth, but there’s no money for the humanities, very little money for the social sciences and we’re cutting money, you know, for research in science. Why? Because metrics … yes, metrics are important. And, and I’ll stand the test and things we do on NYU … you know on metrics that are developed. But they’ve got to be metrics that make sense. But judging basic research on whether it produces something that’s quantifiable economically within a three year period is, is to miss the idea of a university.

That’s one set of trends, but then … and to arc back those 50 years … there’s another set of trends that, that, that will remind you of the battles that, that you fought. I mean the … there actually are people in Congress who have proposed that in the interest of quote “balance”, close quote … the faculties of universities would be assessed to see if their hiring practices are representing an appropriate ideological spectrum. You know, as if one could do that even if one had, had the mind of god to look at it, you know.

There are watch groups that have been, been set up by Congress to, to examine area studies programs under Title Six to see whether or not the research that’s being done is, is politically acceptable. And then you move outside of Congress and there are … I mean I get E-mails regularly from watch groups that report, you know … “we have just heard from a student …” in this class or that class or this class … “that the following has been said and we find this offensive, and will mobilize members and parents, and so forth and so on, because we’re watching you.”

To people like you and me who understand that, that the essence of academic freedom is a dialogic process where, where we welcome the orthodoxy being questioned. To have an orthodoxy, or guardians of orthodoxy out there that, that chill that conversation is to suffer an attack directly on the heart of what universities do.

And, of course, to come back to the main theme … to move the dial back into, you know, focus group approved, uncontroversial slogans that don’t move into the complexity of a topic because, god forbid that in the process of moving into that you step on some kind of land mine.

HEFFNER: John, are these pressures being successful? I’m not asking about NYU, are they being successful in our land?

SEXTON: Well, of course, the nature of activity that is designed to chill certain kinds of speech is it’s very difficult to measure that. I can say … you know I’m, I’m a member of an organization called the Association of American Universities, which, which brings together, you know, about five dozen of the leading research universities, principally in the United States, but also including some from outside the United States.

And, and I’m not concerned that at any of those universities, any President or Dean is tolerating this kind of intrusion. But sometimes standing up to it causes the President or the Dean to be the object of, of, of vilification.

I, I could give you a personal example. I mean I fortunately have escaped … but it’s there, but for the grace of god, relatively unscathed. But I will tell you one of the most meaningful days that occurred during my 14 years as Dean of NYU’s Law School was the day that we had a visit by the Cuban Minister of Justice.

Now there were many in our community who understandably would say that that title was an oxymoron. But the Minister of Justice had asked to come. For one week the fax machine in my office did not stop, with people, largely in this case generated by talk radio in, in Southern Florida, but people just faxing me … condemning me and NYU Law School for, for bestowing a podium on the Cuban Minister of Justice.

We had … as, as most first rate academic institutions have essentially an open podium position. But there were rules. And the Minister was told, number one … if you come, however long you speak, you must stand for questions for twice as long. And number two, there will be no censorship of the questions. And number three, we will pick the audience.

And, and he came. And I remember that night that, that he spoke to a group of about 25 students I would say two-thirds of whom had connections through their family to Cuba. Some had, had family members killed in institutions run by the Cuban Minister of Justice.

And those students … first of all, as he ate his dinner before his presentation … sat like this (he sits still). Didn’t move a muscle. Symbolically would not break bread with him. And then when he spoke, the entire proceedings occurred with them asking the toughest of questions in Spanish.

And, at the end the Minister of Justice left … did he change his views on anything? Did he change his behavior? I doubt it. We’ll never know.

But I do know that two days later I got an E-mail from the Congressman in Florida who’d been … who had condemned NYU Law School a week before, saying “We’ve heard from our students that this was the way a law school or a university should conduct internal dialog and we congratulate you on this.”

It was very, very tough. Very, very tough. And it gets even tougher when the people that are presenting the pressure are people from your neighborhood, in our case Manhattan, or New York City. Powerful people in your neighborhood. It sometimes happens. It sometimes happens.

HEFFNER: You know you worry me, you worry me because John, I remember back 50 years ago when times were so difficult. I remember winning … The Open Mind winning the Robert E. Sherwood Award of the Ford Foundation and having a party at my home that night in which my wife invited a number of people and one couple said, “We have a friend we were to have dinner with, do you mind if we bring him?”. We said, “Of course not.”

Well about a hundred people were there that evening and the friend turned out to be Alger Hiss and the next morning we heard from friends of ours about what a terrible position we had put them in, because they could be asked by some Congressman “Where were you on the night of so-and-so? Or weren’t you in the company Alger Hiss?”

I thought that was fairly over, fairly much gone. And maybe that’s because I’m less involved. But you’re there every day at the university and around the country and obviously you feel there is … if not much … you’re uneasy about what’s going on.

SEXTON: So, so connect the two points because you, you read me correctly … I, I, I do worry about this. I don’t worry about the steadfastness of, of those who are charged with higher education in this regard. I, I don’t think there’s, as I say, a single person in that room of 60 in which I was two weeks ago, in, in conference for two or three days. You know, we get together twice a year, the Presidents of those 60 universities. I’m not worried about those folks. And … we’ll stand together … and we will stand

But the question is the larger societal trend. Because if you, if you take … put aside, as I say, the theological dogmatism. That is … that’s there … I have my own views on the importance of speaking to those people and how we might do it better and how we might engage them in a dialogue. That’s for another day.

But, but the, the … what I’ll call the epistemological dogmatism, that arcs into this allergy to complexity and nuance that then feeds, you know, this, this, this need for simple answers and then in that world where, where truth becomes so binary, you know, it’s … you either have it or you don’t and it, it … that’s where these attacks on rigorous questioning of the orthodoxy rise to the level of religion.

HEFFNER: Talk about attacks, I’m being attacked because our time is over. Thank you, John Sexton, President of NYU. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.