Defending Disinterest

Elizabeth Corey

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The philosophy of British Idealism is now mostly forgotten, except among a few academic philosophers. Yet the idea of "modality," which was central to the Idealists, offers a fresh approach to our interminable fights over the character and purpose of higher education. A modal approach to experience entails multiple, diverse ways of thinking about objects, people, ideas, and institutions.

In the mode of practice, for example, a vase is something that holds flowers. In the historical mode, it is the modern version of the form perfected by the Ming dynasty. The scientist sees a vase as kaolin combined at high temperatures with other materials such as glass, feldspar, and quartz. In the aesthetic mode, a vase is a thing of beauty and wonder. If university education were imagined to exist within different modes like these, then perhaps we might begin to defuse the tensions between people who fundamentally disagree about its purpose.

Two divergent understandings of universities hold the field at present. First is the ascendant "practical-political" view, which aims at one of two goods: social justice or career preparation. A quick perusal of any issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education shows the dominance of these ends. Second, and much less common, is the "disinterested" university, where contemporary political and social problems are set aside for an interval, or are considered only after a period of intellectual apprenticeship. As in old-style liberal-arts degrees like English and history or in modern Great Books curricula, career and purpose are secondary to explorations of the subjects themselves. The insistence of personal interest subsides as students submit to traditions that have long preceded them.  

The practical-political university in its social-justice form advances political progressivism, though many conservatives support this mode of the university as a means of practical career preparation. The disinterested university, by contrast, tends to be favored more by conservatives because it is warmly disposed toward tradition. In general, these two main visions do not coexist happily. Instead, the contemporary debate about universities mimics the familiar dynamics of American politics: opposing visions locked in persistent conflict. The practical-political university is intensely concerned with future outcomes; the disinterested university is focused on the process of learning in and for itself, right now.

Of course these are ideal types, and no single university is entirely one or the other. In any given school, some professors invest their energies in social innovation and service learning, or teach subjects (environmental studies or gender studies, for example) that find their purposes in activism of various kinds. Others, by contrast, engage in "basic research" or painstaking historical or philosophical study that may appear to have no practical import at all. All of these endeavors have value, but their practitioners are not pursuing the same goods. Conservatives criticize their progressive colleagues for placing university studies in the service of social change, and progressives accuse conservatives of engaging in work that makes no difference to the world: Why should we care about the minutiae of St. Augustine's theory of knowledge when so many pressing social problems call out for remedy?

The problem at the moment is that one finds few defenders of disinterest; the practical-political view is almost wholly ascendant. With the exception of those eccentric bastions of liberal learning (St. John's College, a few liberal-arts and honors colleges, and the many small Catholic, evangelical, and reformed institutions that exist across the country), universities appear preoccupied, even obsessed, with the practical-political vision. As the political philosopher Ken Minogue has commented, "[T]he most alarming feature of our times is that the very concept of 'disinterestedness' has almost disappeared from the language. Our world wants a bang from every buck."

Administrators thus aspire to break down disciplinary boundaries, increase diversity and inclusivity, promote sustainability, achieve Tier One status, and in general "change the world," whatever that might mean. Ideas like these have a monopoly on the public discourse about university education, and they are not going away. They are also pre-eminently practical in character.

A modal understanding of universities, however, offers a way of giving these ideas their due without allowing them exclusive domain. It allows a place for the old idea of disinterest. For despite the protestations of theorists like Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault, disinterest is not merely veiled power or a tool of the privileged classes. It is a moral and intellectual virtue whose cultivation would have salutary effects not just on universities but on civil society as a whole. Disinterest demands a quieting of the self and its interests in order to enter into the intellectual and moral worlds of other people who may be quite unlike us in terms of geography, history, and outlook. Cultivating disinterest requires a facility in modally understanding the world and in seeing that the most profound freedom may consist in letting go of our own particular set of interests. This is something that the various identity studies, by definition, can never achieve.


The modern idea of modality has its roots in the work of early-20th-century Idealist thinkers like F. H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet, and R. G. Collingwood (though Collingwood rejected the Idealist label). They argued that the world could only be apprehended in its various aspects or modes. Although these modes imply a wholeness or coherence that supersedes them, human beings always find themselves acting and thinking in particular, bounded, partial ways. The Idealists commonly identified several discrete modes: the scientific, historical, and practical. Some added an aesthetic mode. Each was a system of ideas, or "imaginings," that coexisted with but did not eclipse the others.

As in the vase example, this multiplicity of modes means that we cannot help but see the world partially. We may think that we see something as it is, wholly and completely, but in fact we only see certain aspects. The practical vase is not the aesthetic vase, nor is it the historical or scientific one. At best we may "toggle" between modes, considering the vase's scientific properties when we are in a lab, seeing it aesthetically when visiting a museum of decorative arts. And objects are not the only things that may be seen modally. We can approach ideas, institutions, and even people in such a way. Marriage, for instance, may be understood practically as a contract between two people for the sake of (one hopes) pleasure and utility. Alternatively, it may be seen aesthetically — for the beauty and value of the relationship itself, or, as the phrase goes, "for its own sake." So it is with universities, too.

But these modes do not stand on an equal footing, and the practical mode tends to dominate. Practice encompasses moral and political life: love and marriage, politics and war, childrearing and work. We pursue our interests in this mode, though these need not be selfish interests, as if we were all rational utility-maximizers. Works of charity and compassion take place here, too. Still, the mode of practice is both costly and forward-looking. What we spend in money, time, or effort cannot be taken back, and we are unavoidably concerned with future outcomes. We attempt to prevent pain and suffering, to promote justice and other political goods, to save money for retirement, and in general to go on living.

Practical considerations thus have a place in universities, as they do in every other realm of life. University administrators are concerned with the survival of their institutions, and professors constantly feel pressure to make their courses relevant. Students are often the most practical people of all, with their insistent questions about whether courses will be helpful in their future lives and careers. When university governing boards and state politicians inquire about the aims and practices of higher education, they are asking the most natural of all human questions: Of what use is this to us?

The modes of science and history have traditionally also had a place in universities because they are concerned with certain kinds of explanation. Indeed, these modes rarely appear outside universities, for each is concerned with a particular, distinct set of considerations or questions that may be asked about the world. Science purports to be entirely communicable, where subjectivity is banished in favor of quantification and measure. History is a mode in which everything that happens is understood in terms of its temporal context, not in terms of quantity or usefulness.

But yet another mode, the aesthetic, can sometimes seem as natural as practice. We feel the reality of this mode most acutely when we are startled by something beautiful, or when we delight in another person, or in a particularly arresting turn of phrase, or in a child's use of language. It also appears when we engage in intellectual inquiry without worrying about its consequences: translating a passage of Latin, writing a geometric proof, reading a novel for pleasure. This mode haunts us with its promise of something more permanent and fulfilling than the endless, temporary satisfactions of life's great to-do list.

The origins of this aesthetic approach to the intellectual life are found in the very beginnings of Western philosophy. In Platonic language, it entails contemplating the ideal "forms" of being rather than the material manifestations of those forms. Or, as Aristotle explains in the Nicomachean Ethics, a carpenter and a geometrician "both want to find a right angle, but they do not want to find it in the same sense: the former wants to find it to the extent to which it is useful for his work, the latter, wanting to see truth, tries to ascertain what it is and what sort of thing it is." The geometrician, then, is analogous to the philosopher, the disinterested seeker, who desires enlightenment for the satisfaction that only enlightenment can provide. Most of us are carpenters, although we may sense that there is something more.

The aesthetic mode is a fresh way of expressing the old idea of disinterest: an attentive, engaged interest in something that is not essentially related to the self and that may point far beyond the self. Incidentally, the idea of disinterest has a long and contested history, beginning with Shaftesbury in the early-18th century or perhaps even earlier with Descartes, and finding various expressions in Hobbes, Hutcheson, Hume, Kant, and numerous 20th-century writers. For present purposes, however, I am concerned with a relatively commonplace understanding of what it might mean for academic life. Disinterest makes an appearance whenever we act "for the sake of" a given activity, thinking neither of our particular aims nor of the activity's consequences.

I might, for instance, have a "disinterested interest" in medieval art history or the origins of the common law, but these things do not bear on me directly, nor I on them. The disinterested person, like Adam Smith's famous impartial spectator, aims at seeing his interests alongside those of others. He attempts to overcome or temper the natural self-regard that comes with being human. He may inadvertently acquire restraint and self-control. And because he has been freed to enter into the complex moral worlds of other people, he may also cultivate the characteristics of sympathy, humility, and charity.


So again, why is all of this relevant to universities? It is relevant because we are in the midst of endless battles about the proper character and aims of university education. For some people, colleges and universities are straightforwardly equivalent to businesses. A dean at a prominent university explains it like this: "The way I view it, almost everything is a business, whether for-profit or not. Save the Children is a business. So is National Geographic. Higher education is just another form of organization." For others, colleges and universities function as laboratories of social reform. According to a dean at another American university, which offers a major in social justice: "From sex trafficking to pure-water initiatives, we want to make sure our students are prepared to impact every situation with a hurt or need around the globe."

But a modal view implies that different understandings of the university could potentially exist at once, and that neither the business nor the activist purpose has to dominate. This can only happen, though, if individuals are able to enter into modes of experience that may not feel natural or intuitive. In learning the basics of calculus or physics, for example, a student must put aside the question of practical usefulness. But preparation for the LSAT, also an intellectual exercise, is the pursuit of an easily understood, practical goal. These activities are categorically different. Both have a place in the university.

The real-world problem arises when one mode, usually practice, tries to "rule" the others. Practical-political universities make this move in familiar ways: They promote some particular form (or many forms) of social justice; they tout the high employment rate of their graduates; or they claim that every single student will graduate with exceptional leadership skills. They enthusiastically advertise "real-world" outcomes that cater to the interests of students and parents. They may also pressure faculty into pursuing these aims, by tailoring grants and evaluations toward ends that are directly at odds with the traditional goods of disinterested study (which will be discussed further below).

But disinterest, despite its many virtues, does not provide a simple contrary vision that, if adopted, would solve the problem of excessive practical "interest." If we assume that all study is or ought to be disinterested — i.e., personal questions about meaning and identity are banished from the scene — an alternative vision of the intellectual life may appear that is so extreme as to be nearly impossible to achieve. It is the mirror image of the activist academy, or what might be called the "New Criterion vision" of the depoliticized academy.

Roger Kimball, editor of the New Criterion, has long argued that the progressive takeover of higher education during the last 50 years or so has corrupted the whole endeavor. "By injecting politics into the heart of the educational enterprise," progressives have destroyed liberal education. Kimball pulls no punches: Multiculturalists "encourage an orgy of self-flagellating liberal guilt as impotent as it is insatiable." They are also anti-American, and embrace the "de-civilizing tenets of...political correctness."

Kimball is surely onto something important. Yet when academic subjects are taught as wholly separate from politics and lived experience, as they often are, they do not satisfy the students' desire to figure out how best to live. The success of the practical-political university results at least in part from its willingness to address the questions about identity and meaning that naturally arise among students: Who am I? Does it matter that I'm a woman, or a man, or that I'm black, or wealthy, or poor? Should I live like my parents? What constitutes valuable work? How should I approach the social problems I see around me? The practical-political university answers these questions, ushering students into their new roles as workers, activists, or both. Ignoring or downplaying such concerns, as those of us who favor disinterest sometimes do, may drive students directly into the more extreme forms of identity politics.

Imagine, for example, an aspiring classicist who enrolls in courses that are exclusively concerned with philology, where he is discouraged from asking the questions about the moral life that arise in Homer or Plato. Or a young college student enrolls in an English literature class, hoping to reread her favorite books and discover new ones, and instead she is fed a steady diet of literary theory. The books are deconstructed before her eyes, and she begins to see them as flawed and irrelevant. Perhaps other students find themselves in political-science classes that focus not on the American political experience but on statistical studies of voting behavior. Art history, likewise, is not presented as a full accounting of time, place, artists, and ideas, but as the examination of brush strokes, patterns, and techniques, with an occasional nod to context.

These examples point to a constant temptation for professors in the modern academy: teaching to one's specialized interests rather than attending to the needs of students. Even if these interests are not political per se, they are also not answering the most pressing question posed by undergraduates: Why should I care about this stuff? While the goods of such study may be self-evident to professors, they are not always so clear to beginners.

Against this background, imagine how startled a young female student would be if a dynamic professor marched into the classroom and provided a convincing theory that made sense of why she had always felt slightly inferior to the boys in her classes, or, if she were black or Hispanic, why it seemed that career prospects were always better for her white friends than for her. The professor might provide a "structural" explanation for the racist attitudes that she had sometimes observed, and the student might even be brought to see that she herself was complicit in racism in ways she had not seen before. The professor could explain different kinds of knowledge — "normalizing knowledge" versus "oppositional knowledge" — and insist that she and her peers had an obligation to change the status quo.

The explanatory power of such teaching would be illuminating, but even more exciting would be the sense of purpose it provided. "There is oppression in the world," the student might think, "so why am I not doing something about it?" Or perhaps: "I have experienced injustice as a woman, so why shouldn't I try to make things right, for myself and for others who come after me?" And then the groundwork is laid. She majors in women's or gender studies and begins to see the world through the lens of power and oppression. She cannot believe that she has been blind all these years to what is right in front of her. She has found purpose and meaning. She has also, unfortunately, become uni-modal in her approach to education. Academic study is only meaningful if it issues in real-world, practical outcomes.

A second problem with disinterestedness is that, while certain subjects are quite resistant to politics (the material covered in engineering and computer-science courses has little inherent connection to race or gender), other fields are political through and through: for instance, sociology, political science, and law, not to mention the various newer "studies" courses that have cropped up over the past 30 years. How exactly can one teach American constitutional law, for instance, without recognizing the thoroughly political character of nearly every landmark decision made by the Supreme Court? Race, gender, and sexuality are essential for understanding contemporary life, and we do our students a disservice if we do not work through these issues with them.

Leaving politics wholly out of higher education is therefore both impossible and undesirable. We must make subtler distinctions, and see that political education is a vital part of the college experience, though it is certainly not the only part. This is not political education as indoctrination. Instead, students should come to see the complexity of the political world and the real competing goods pursued by the left and right. Just as important, they must be educated in the historical and philosophical origins of the political ideas that we now take for granted, such as liberalism, equality, and freedom.

Conversely, in other areas of scholarship and thought, politics is either not relevant, or relevant only in a tangential way. The poetry of Catullus or Horace may evoke reflection about Roman politics or about the relations between men and women. But these poets are not primarily tools for engaging in contemporary critiques of our own institutions; they are thinkers in their own right, concerned with issues that are not exactly ours. If the gender roles in Catullus (or in Aristotle or Plato or Homer) are not what we would personally desire, let us bracket these feelings and understand the authors on their own terms before we denounce them as sexist or racist. Or maybe we shouldn't denounce them at all. We artificially constrict experience if we view the intellectual world wholly through the lenses we have acquired in our own personal, contemporary experience.

The point here is that different kinds of study call for different attitudes toward hot-button political topics like race, gender, power, and oppression. Addressing modern political questions is appropriate in certain forms of study, and in others it is not — or it is at least inappropriate to use such questions as the primary framework for understanding the subject in question. In many fields, and even in the study of politics, what may be most necessary is that old idea of disinterest.


The modal understanding of the university would allow for the pursuit of both practical-political aims and for disinterested study. Disinterest is not an easy solution to the problem of the ever-increasing politicization of the university, yet it must have a place. Depending on the chosen mode, universities might be seen as institutions that prepare students for moral and political life or alternatively as places of refuge — even of monastic retreat — from that life.

The civil coexistence of these visions depends upon our learning to live with people who have diverse and even contradictory ideas about the purpose of academic institutions. Outsiders often remark on the "ivory tower" character of universities. But we who live and work in them know that they contain people of every possible inclination, from intensely practical business and engineering professors to "old school" professors of literature, history, and philosophy. And there are also those who spend their lives in Chicano studies or in nursing, in film and digital media or in family and consumer sciences. How can we possibly assimilate this diversity into one idea of what a contemporary university is for? And anyway, it would contradict the whole notion of disinterest if those who support the idea of disinterested study tried to "win the day." This would be to enter, once again, the practical mode, where winning matters.

But certain practical actions are still appropriate. Perhaps the most important step professors can take is to cultivate the tradition of disinterested learning by engaging in it, and by showing that there are modally different ways of approaching the intellectual life. Many scholars continue to do this every day, even under increasing pressure to pursue contrary ends. Disinterested study appears any time a historian pores over old newspaper articles to find out the facts of an event, trying to figure out what happened and what was said about it at the time without regard for contemporary relevance. It appears when a professor reads the classic novels of British literature with students, discussing plot and character and the ideas contained within. If a music historian presents Bach cantatas to a class that has never heard them, delighting in the performance, or in the harmony, or in the pure emotion that such works evoke, this too is disinterest. Disinterest has not left our universities altogether; it is just not valued very much in a world that finds delight, contemplation, and that lovely old idea of "useless knowledge" rather puzzling.

Another practical step is to appreciate and live with the real and ineradicable diversity of colleagues. This is not merely the diversity of the progressive academy, which is marked by categories like race, gender, and sexuality. It is diversity of ultimate ends and of self-understanding. In my own academic program, for example, there are committed pacifists and a just-war theorist; one colleague teaches Paulo Freire's revolutionary pedagogy while I see myself as an inheritor of the conservatism of Burke and Oakeshott. Another colleague teaches a course in philanthropy, the aim of which is to award funds to deserving community organizations; still another teaches epidemiology and pre-medical courses; and yet another leads students in a literary study of the Bible. So far, nobody has tried to assimilate anyone else into his pet projects. We have cobbled together a mostly successful assemblage of interest and disinterest, of modally different approaches to learning.

We have achieved this in part by thinking of ourselves as an association of persons with a variety of self-chosen interests, without a governing passion or mission for the group as a whole, short of teaching our students. This stands in stark contrast to the imperative most universities now obey in constructing supposedly unifying mission and vision statements meant to inspire passionate engagement. But perhaps what Americans need most right now is less passion and more disinterest — not so many "rage reads" and a lot more circumspection.

It turns out, too, that a disinterested approach to learning does not necessarily preclude the study of personal identity. It does, however, require a fundamentally different moral stance from the one assumed by contemporary identity politics. Such studies usually begin by assuming that characteristics like race, gender, and sexuality imply certain traits, sets of experiences, or shared views. Although this is true in part, it is also deterministic and limited in predictive power. Such a view certainly explains Michelle Obama's irritating and presumptuous observation that "[a]ny woman who voted against Hillary Clinton voted against their own voice."

In disinterested study, however, students do not view the world solely through the lens of their own experiences but as if any moral possibility were available to them. Somewhat surprisingly, this requires an even greater openness to categories of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity than does study that begins with an already-formed identity. Identity studies by design — and certainly in practice — tend to exclude those who do not, and cannot, share the identity in question.

Yet we might easily imagine a female student who identifies far more with Odysseus than with Penelope, or a male student who shares characteristics with Dido, though not with Aeneas. Homer and Vergil illustrate universal human characteristics that appear to greater or lesser degrees in certain characters, regardless of sex or any other marker of difference.

Questions about personal identity have never really been absent from great literature or philosophy. After all, every time a reader "mixes his labor" with a foundational text, something new emerges, even if it is only a tentative understanding in that reader's mind. Why else should we continue to read these old books? It is much like what happens in music, where every artist's recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations (or cover of a Beatles song) is a new creation. Each is valuable for its own sake, and irreplicable.

The best teachers are aware that even traditional, disinterested study cannot help but foster identity formation in students who take it seriously. Of course, such formation happens inevitably in college without any design at all. When students arrive on campus, they watch and emulate their professors and peers; they change and develop without even knowing it. But change also comes from classwork. If students are caught early on by the all-encompassing social-justice or job-preparation worldviews, it is easy to see where they are likely to end up. But if instead they are taught to see the complexity of the moral world by considering disinterestedly a broad variety of thinkers, images, hypotheses, conjectures, and arts, then perhaps they might arrive at positions that are not so dogmatic. If they are able to enter into different modes of experience, recognizing which mode is appropriate and when, then they can escape the problem of being uni-modal.


Disinterested study is a foundational good in university education precisely because it allows teachers and students to pursue the truth and to set aside calculations of utility and advantage. If this sounds old fashioned, that's because it is. But consider the distortions that creep in when we are too personally invested: We massage data to support our conclusions; we imagine that "telling our own story" stands as unqualified truth; we ask research questions that we know will issue in favorable political outcomes. We can never escape ourselves. And scholarship without disinterest also cuts off the very highest modes of inquiry: Must we always use geometry to build a bridge or carpet a room, or is there still a place for wondering about the nature of the triangle and circle as such, and even about what universals lie beyond the triangle and circle? As one of my most perceptive students put it, "I want to be able to think about things that aren't only related to me."

In a pluralist vision such as the one I have been describing, neither side would win unconditionally, but both could coexist. Perhaps we might one day be able to say, as does the goddess Athena in her judgment of two warring parties at the end of Aeschylus's Oresteia, "Do great things, feel greatness, greatly honoured. Share this country cherished by the gods."

Perhaps it is too late for many current professors and administrators to embrace a modal vision of the university, where history, science, practice, and aesthetic disinterestedness can coexist. They, like all of us, tend to become hardened by habit into certain familiar patterns of thought. And progressive academics, by nature and training, find it difficult to appreciate traditions without immediately turning to criticism. But it is not too late for our students to see the beauty of a truly liberating education, just as John Henry Newman described it long ago: "a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life."

Elizabeth Corey is an associate professor of political science at Baylor University. 


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