University presidents often indulge in rhetorical flourishes about the importance of reason in the academy and the public square. In his short book Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age, John Sexton, recently retired president of New York University, moves beyond such formulaic encomia to offer a clear description of reason in action as a cure for the mindless dogmatism that infects us in the age of Twitter.
Commentators on higher education invariably regard their own intellectual history as general truth. Sexton’s trajectory from Brooklyn Prep to president of the country’s largest private university is, however, unusual in the extreme. How do you start with a 2.1 GPA in college and go anywhere in higher education? There were miraculous turns along the way. No less an eminence than Tim Healy, SJ, chastised Sexton for his miserable college performance: “You have disappointed us.” Fordham University was, however, initiating a new PhD program in religion and needed students. Healy offered Sexton a fellowship.
Having completed his graduate work, Sexton taught religious studies for ten years at St. Francis in Brooklyn (“the small college with big dreams”), ending as chair of the department. A longtime interest in the law led him to apply to law school. He was turned down by all New York law schools, but—another fortuitous intervention—Laurence Tribe, a preeminent scholar of constitutional law, recommended Sexton to Harvard. He was accepted there and the rest unfolds as a plausible path to high office: appointment to NYU Law School, dean, and president.
That, at least, is an external account of Sexton’s career; there is also an internal story that leads directly to his defense of reason. That tale starts with Charlie Winans, an inspiring lay teacher at Brooklyn Prep, who suggested that Sexton join the school debate team. Not only was Sexton good at debate, he was named national champion in his senior year. He was so enthusiastic about debate that he offered to coach the debate team at his sister’s high school. Sexton notes that debate “framed the next fifteen years of my life.... [I]t opened my world in unimaginable ways—intellectual, social, even spiritual. It provided the most formidable element of my education.” Debate as Sexton practiced and taught it is a formal process that encapsulates his view of reason in the academy and the public arena. Formal debate begins with a proposition to be defended or attacked. Debaters do not know in advance whether they will be asked to argue the affirmative or negative, so they prepare for both. Debate proceeds through a number of rounds of constructive argument and rebuttal, followed by a determination of the winner by designated judges. Two aspects of formal debate express important rules for rational argument. In-depth study of both sides of an argument assures that any position arrived at recognizes the force of counterarguments and countervailing evidence. The legal world to which Sexton turned exemplifies a pattern of debate. Lawyers must anticipate the arguments of the opposing party while advancing their own case through facts, reasonable conjecture, and rebuttal.
It makes sense to construct a model of reason for higher education on the foundation of debate; indeed, the first universities were built on just such a model. One can argue that the ideological base of university study was contained in Peter Abelard’s Sic et Non (1115–1117). The major difference between formal debate and law on the one hand and the university on the other is that the former have designated judges or juries. Who judges an advance toward truth in the academy? Philosophic pragmatists like John Dewey, rejecting “the quest for certainty,” believed that the ongoing academic disciplines served as continual critique. In the long run arguments would be judged by a consensus of professional scholars. I think Sexton would be happy enough with that view, but he underpins it with Teilhard’s notion of the evolutionary convergence of culture.