- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2000

I am a judgmental man partly meaning that, as an English professor, I think that some novels or poems are better than others. Nor does it stop there. I regard some student papers as deserving an A while others warrant only a C. Making such judgments comes with the academic territory, however much some students might wish it otherwise. Regarded this way, most reasonable people would agree that it's OK to be judgmental.

The rub comes when I explain the second part of what makes me a judgmental man, and that's where the sneer marks surrounding the word "judgmental" start to come in. I regard some behaviors as better than others, and, worse, feel that some people are better than others. This attitude is not likely to make you wildly popular in a culture that is morally relativistic to its core. Indeed, that's what the sneer quotes mean to imply, and why it is that being called judgmental is, on far too many campuses, seen as the ultimate put-down.

Small wonder, then, that I took a measure of solace from Gertrude Himmelfarb's recent book, "One Nation, Two Cultures." As an intellectual historian of the first water, Mrs. Himmelfarb marshals an impressive amount of historical evidence to explain how we got to our present moral pickle, and why it is that I am hardly alone in feeling that the condition once known as moral gravitas has been replaced by a culture that seemingly permits anything anything, that is, except smoking and eating red meat. Asked to write about slavery in the antebellum South or about genocide in Nazi Germany, some students would rather waffle than use the judgmental word, evil. And this tendency, I fear, is much more pronounced in the life students live outside the classroom. There, I am told, nothing is worse than being called "judgmental" because judgmental folks strike our dominant culture as arrogant, pinch-faced, and all too much like the Puritans who brought such grief to New England.

The good news that Mrs. Himmelfarb brings to our ongoing culture war is that there is now an increasing band of citizens, including many students, who are no longer ashamed to profess their faith-based beliefs and to feel that there is something fundamentally amiss with a culture that has largely abandoned such older concepts as hard work and individual responsibility. In an age that overvalues the therapeutic we are awash in projects out to bolster one's sagging self-esteem or to provide spirituality on the cheap. Those in what Mrs. Himmelfarb calls the culture of dissent know better: High school students tell pollsters that they feel good about their math ability, but still score miserably on standard math tests; New Agers put their trust in the trendy (whether it be crystals or channeling) rather than in the more demanding business of what I call religion on the hard.

As Mrs. Himmelfarb argues, fears about the Christian Right some of them well-founded have blinded us to the fact that our nation is currently undergoing a Fourth Awakening, one reflected in the sharp rise of children attending religious day schools and the ways in which outmoded notions such as the work ethic and personal responsibility seem to be making a comeback.

Even more impressive, the renewed interest in virtue cuts across the usual dividing lines of race, class, gender, or religious affiliation. What binds serious Catholics, Jews, Protestants and Muslims is a sense that the word of God matters, whether one finds it in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament or the Koran. Others, not especially prone to religious identifications, have their own ways of finding a place at the table, usually on a case-by-case basis. By contrast, what interests politicians who shamelessly blather on about "family values" is, of course, votes.

People who take the soul's condition seriously represent a danger to our dominant, largely amoral culture. They are likely to be judgmental in ways that call too many unquestioned beliefs into question. But this, along with the pursuit of truth, is what liberal learning should be about. When Socrates ruminated about how a good person should live (and not live), he set into motion a discussion and a method that has attracted the best minds human history has produced.

Indeed, that is why liberal learning should pay a proper respect to the past even as it remains curious, and open-minded, about the present. And that is also why our ongoing debate can no longer marginalize, much less demonize, those who have the temerity to announce themselves as social conservatives whether they be pro-lifers or people sickened by everything that coarsens the general culture and socially engineers the individual. For better or worse, classrooms are likely to be more candid and more intellectually contentious than they have been for decades. I take this (largely) as a good thing. Who knows, the time may yet come when being a judgmental person will be seen as a badge of honor instead of a sign of shame.

Sanford Pinsker is professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

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