The miscarried renaissance of academia in the midcentury, highlighted by the death of collegiate literary societies, explains our political breakdown and the rise of the most dangerous school of legal thought in American history.
By Bryson Piscitelli
The past fifty years of United States legal history can only be described as tumultuous at best, tragic at worst. Even those unfamiliar with the evolution of legal precedent, which is excusably most people, have no doubt been alerted at some point or other by a news headline about a contentious ‘5-4 decision’ of the Supreme Court being ‘along partisan lines’.1 No doubt also is the phrase ‘the liberal wing’ or ‘the conservative wing of the Court’ an equally layman’s recollection. These phrases should not be seen as normal, in fact, they should be extraordinarily concerning. I do not mean to imply that the court is composed of five Republicans and four Democrats, or that it is composed of ‘activist judges’. The truth is actually far more sinister.
The current divide in the American judicial branch is not left-right, but rather a new phenomenon of dichotomy between traditional constitutionalists and modernist legislators. I argue that the social institution of American academia, into which our country has entrusted the reins of power for its entire existence, has been corrupted, causing this divide. Following the sepsis of the nation’s top universities’ academic cultures after debilitating countercultural and postmodernist movements, their alumni assuming roles as lawmakers and jurists poisoned the health of constitutionalism by legislating the values they were taught at universities. Put simply, as a result of a cultural revolution in academia, which I will show as highlighted by the near-extinction of collegiate literary societies, our ruling class has failed us.
Allow me to paint a brief picture. After 1800, most significant American statesmen had graduated from universities like William and Mary, UNC, Harvard, UGA, Yale, Georgetown, Princeton, Columbia, and so on. In effect these universities assumed the position of a significant institution in American society, parallel to that of Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom; a role of producing men well-read and well-connected enough to support the civil and political society of the young Republic. Specifically, almost all of them trained to read law, which is unsurprising considering that politics is the art of creating, abolishing, and interpreting that subject.
These universities were small—smaller than most modern high schools. The reason we are so often greeted with ‘he graduated top of his class’ when researching prominent men of the 19th century is because their class was usually less than only 100 people. The phrase ‘everyone should go to college’, always on the lips of politicians and academics today, was inconceivable. True, the population was much smaller, but this traditional modus operandi of the academic social institution continued for many decades in spite of population growth. In fact, for the over 100 years between the 1790s and 1920s, the culture of American academia was relatively constant: young people showing great intellectual capacity and/or with connected families went to the university to be educated for the goal of becoming part of the political class.
After the two World Wars, everything changed. Not only did the passage of the G.I. Bill inject tens of thousands of young men into colleges that otherwise would not have attended, but new 20th century social movements greatly influenced academics and the intelligentsia as societies ravaged by war and pandemic sought to rectify mass psychic trauma. Modernism, or postmodernism, encompass these movements: all of which feature the rejection of conceptions of truth, beauty, tradition, and existing institutions of society.
The changes to academia were too many to address in one article, so I will focus primarily on one: the death of collegiate literary societies. These societies, prominent features within that academian social institution designed for perpetuating the ideals of the Republic, were a sort of institution-within-an-institution that preserved political-cultural traditions through historicism, oratory, research, and inculcating a practice of self government. Not only did these societies exist at every major university, but they were the defining engine to their students’ daily lives: important examples are the Philodemic Society at Georgetown, Princeton’s Whig and Cliosophic Societies, the Philomathean and Zelosophic societies at the University of Pennsylvania, the Philolexian and Peithologian societies at Columbia, the Demosthenians at UGA, the Political Union at Yale, the Jeffersonians at UVA, and UNC’s own Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies.
At UNC, the Dialectic and Philanthropic societies produced all of our most prominent and influential alumni of the nation’s political class: President James K. Polk (Di), Vice President William R. D. King (Phi), most of our State’s most important jurists (for example, Walter M. Clark (Phi) who coined the state motto and served on the NC Supreme Court for 35 years), several Secretaries of the Navy, Secretaries of War, and other Presidential cabinet members, countless Congressmen and Senators (for example William Henry Eaton (Phi), the youngest U.S. Senator in history) many North Carolina governors pre-1950 like O. Max Gardner and his successor John Eringhaus (Phi), as well as governors of other states, foreign dignitaries, presidents of UNC like Robert Burton House (Phi), David O. Swain (Di) and Kemp Plummer Battle (Di), and the ‘father of North Carolina’ John Motley Morehead (Di), to name a few.
The thing that all these men had in common was their membership in either the Dialectic or Philanthropic Society: where they would debate multiple times a week in hallowed chambers adorned with mahogany bookshelves, imposing gilded oil portraits of fellow society alumni, atop Persian rugs and amongst formally-dressed peers eager to engage in philosophical and historical debate. DiPhi, as the Societies are collectively known, echoed the other collegiate societies in that they created practically everything on their campus: the UNC library system (see for yourself next time you open a library book and find Endowed by the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies inside the cover), the honor court, the yearbook, student government, even the school colors. If you’re wondering, the famous Carolina blue and white comes from the Di and the Phi, respectively.
In fact, membership was actually required in either the Di or Phi before 1889 at UNC, as it was in other universities’ societies. To not be a member of either Society at UNC continued to be a complete anomaly until about the 1940s. Yet by the 1970s, DiPhi had lost most of its beautiful portraits, dwindled in membership, and had become a group mostly dedicated to arguing about Star Trek. For this reason, most alumni that attended during the time when UNC became ‘UNC-Chapel Hill’ (and became better known for its basketball program than producing Presidents) have probably never heard of DiPhi. This painful history is not unique to old NCU; across the Union, most collegiate literary societies have gone from being the organ of student government and social life to obscure social clubs.
The logic employed by university administrations that either complacently or actively allowed the diminution of these societies’ rule of campus life was that the societies’ nominally exclusive nature was detrimental to the newfound purpose of academia to be more inclusive. This logic could not be further from the truth. Literary societies like DiPhi were actually proponents of change; at UNC the Societies allowed women members in the 1930s and the Philanthropic Society welcomed UNC’s first black student in the 1950s. This was of their own election, not university-enforced policy—especially obvious when considering that DiPhi actually violated University policy by having an integrated dance formal. By contrast, the newfound darlings of academic administrations that were intended to promote diversity and inclusion; independent student governments, ethno-cultural societies, and partisan political groups; actually fragmented the student body and led to less inclusive university experiences that were completely alienated from history to boot.
This was the new university born out of a midcentury captivated by modernist thought: buildings that look like concrete blocks; thousands of students living in high-rises a half-mile from their campus and ‘going to college to have a good time’; a divorce of student government from historical-literary societies that kept their members in check with the important mantle of school and national tradition. As university populations exploded, it became impossible to incubate the intimate connection-building and appreciation for enlightenment philosophy fostered by the prestige- and historical-minded literary societies of the past.
From this transition, American society has suffered immeasurably. At our own university, its grounds absolutely saturated with history and magnificent Greek Revivalist architecture emblematic of the ideals of the Republic, it is possible to graduate having practically never once set foot around the actual center of the campus near McCorkle Quad, but instead, be confined to frequenting the architectural wasteland of the towering concrete blocks around the Pit. One can even be a political science major and go on to be elected to high office without ever once being in a UNC organization committed to practicing history and self-government! Our own governor is an example: Roy Cooper attended UNC in the 1970s and because of DiPhi’s nonexistent significance at the time, his political involvement was confined to the partisan Young Democrats, a far cry from the respected societies committed to the lofty ideals of knowledge and dialectics. Not only has this led to an American society divorced from its own history (which is dangerous for any civilization), but it has wreaked havoc on our legal-political system.
What is this dangerous legal philosophy anyways? It takes many forms, and some call it the ‘Living Constitution’, or ‘legislating from the bench’, but I find the more accurate way of comparing it is actually to the architectural displays shown above. Governments have ‘structure’ and thus their own architecture—the word constitution, as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was fond of noting, actually means the structural design of a government. (Does it separate powers into three branches? How are they elected? Is it federalist or unitary?) Just as modernist architects rejected the ideas of beauty and form in the 1960s in favor of mind-bogglingly ugly block-structures, legal architects began espousing new ‘progressive’ ideas that have eroded the system of checks and balances and seem, frankly, completely insane. For example, many judges began saying the President should not be afforded control over executive departments, but that Congress has superior authority over the executive’s employees. Others said that the Second Amendment does not even give individuals the right to bear arms! The majority of government activities that violate the nondelegation doctrine stem from this legal philosophy that we have ‘evolved’ past the need for checks and balances, dusty old things that have become irrelevant in our enlightened modern age. Or take the newly invented doctrine of ‘qualified immunity’ that allows, among other things, police officers to maliciously shoot children without reprimand so long as there is no legal precedent establishing that action’s illegality. (This one has become so controversial that both the ACLU and the Second Amendment Foundation, among others, all vehemently oppose it.)2
The shockwaves of this ideological strain can be seen throughout politics but particularly in the legal system, where an ever-growing number of jurists educated at elite law schools in the 1960s–present have rejected traditional views of the Constitution with devastating results. Justice Scalia, no surprise a champion debater in Georgetown’s Philodemic Society in the 1950s, explains in his book Reading Law that, “[S]ince the mid-twentieth century, there has been a breakdown in the transmission of [our] heritage. Over the past 50 years especially, we have seen the judiciary take control of territory that ought to be settled legislatively. [Indeed, S]ome commentators have claimed since the mid-20th century that ‘[a]ll language is ambiguous.’” (ellipses omitted)
Scalia further elaborated on this principle in his 2012 interview with the Hoover Institution’s Uncommon Knowledge:
Peter Robinson: “Fifty years ago something terrible happened. What was it? What went wrong? Why did it happen then?”
Justice Scalia: “We don’t try to explain why it happened then. It did happen then. The time that that philosophy took over is about the time of the Warren Court. There had been hints of it earlier, I suppose, but it was never the accepted philosophy of the judiciary. The ‘Living Constitution’ notion, the notion that all words are ambiguous—[that] it’s really up to the court to give them meaning—is much more attractive to academics than it is to judges. And it’s really the Academy that brought all of this into the prominence and into the majority status that it now enjoys.”
Robinson: “So the courts… lags (sic) the Academy?”
Scalia: “Yeah I think probably. I think probably there were law professors that were espousing these views before the courts adopted them.” (emphasis approximated)
Scalia might not have explained why it happened then, but by analyzing the stark correlation between countercultural postmodernist thought dominating universities, the concurrent near-extinction of extraordinarily important and illustrious debating societies, and the rise in political extremism and corruption of judicial integrity, the picture is clear. These universities were built to create a ruling political class, aided by the existence of collegiate societies that fostered self-government and appreciation for history and enlightenment ideals. This functioned smoothly as the universities’ societies remained healthy, student bodies were reasonably sized, and history and traditions were respected and debated frequently. As the universities abdicated their institutional responsibility in favor of growth in physical size, financial endowment, and pursuing an unattainable goal of advancing ‘equitable education’ by greatly expanding their student populations, they lost the ability to produce a ruling class equipped with the necessary tools for governing a Republic.
However, it must be admitted that correlation does not equal causation. Could it be possible that these societies universally diminished because we have naturally evolved past their necessity? Even still, maybe the death of esoteric traditions of elitism dependent on select aesthetics is unrelated to more concrete changes like the politicization of the judiciary. Furthermore, Antonin Scalia is, unfortunately, a controversial person to cite as an unbiased, definitive authority on a politically contentious subject because of his staunch conservatism.
To address the first point: the aforementioned debating societies are demonstrably linked to the health of the nation. The graduation of the UNC class of 1847, for example, was indicative of the thriving reinforcement of the governing class. “In attendance were President James K. Polk, class of 1818; Secretary of the Navy John Y. Mason, class of 1816; John Branch, class of 1801, former governor of North Carolina and secretary of the navy, in 1847 governor of Florida; and most of the then dignitaries of state… The visiting statesmen sat in on the oral examinations of the seniors in constitutional and international law.”3 Afterwards, the President of the United States made personal acquaintance with the new graduates and offered them recommendations, for example, one for a professorship at the US Naval Observatory. In fact, many prominent politicians made speeches to regular meetings of DiPhi, like Justice William Gaston’s 1832 Address to the Societies,4 a highly influential speech on the evils of slavery in the South. By contrast, 2019’s commencement packed over six thousand graduates in a football stadium and was keynoted by the CEO of Habitat for Humanity. This is not to say that college graduations do not still attract important people, but they (especially at UNC) are far removed from the intimate collaboration of young and old, lawmakers and politicians-to-be that they once so intentionally were.
To the second counterpoint, ‘conservative’ judges have been equally as guilty as ‘liberal’ ones. One of the most prominent examples of a ‘good conservative’ justice being absolutely corrupted by influences of modernist legal thought was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, appointed by Ronald Reagan. Justice O’Connor was not only a user but an emphatic proponent of the inconceivable legal doctrine of transjudicialism: the idea that United States courts should reference other nations’ contemporary legal decisions as justification for new precedent. This concept is so baffling to even the most moderate appreciator of the American constitutional system that its only explanation is an origin in the loopy postmodernist academy of the midcentury.
Yet these universities still produce our ruling class of political elite. Their rejection of the environments for rearing scholar-leaders was clearly not a natural transition but an aberration of the healthy conduct of society, which can be proven by assessing the prominent rise of politicians that are outside of the once carefully-educated political class. When there has been a groundswell to elect people because of their lack of political experience, we should know something is deathly wrong with the institutions producing the ‘establishment’.
I have demonstrated the reasons for the destruction of the healthy engine of our Republic, but how do we solve this problem? To the ire of both authoritarians and libertarians, the solution is neither the state seizure of academia nor the total privatization of it. Perplexingly, the death of tradition at universities was rather unaffected by the private or public status of institutions; even at gothic, private Georgetown, the Philodemics ceased existing and required a re-founding in 1989, even worse than the Demosthenians at public UGA and our own DiPhi despite their lulls in influence. All historic literary societies decreased in prominence and membership in the midcentury regardless of their universities’ control by elitist alumni or a public board.
The answer is a return to tradition. The erosion of the health of our political system cannot be solved simply by shifting in one direction on the political compass, but only by a determined reestablishment of the sui generis composition of political, social, and philosophical ideals that caused the young American Republic to become so fantastically successful.
While the answer may be easy to outline on paper, I fear that it will be extraordinarily difficult to actually achieve, and I am forced to leave this article on an uncertain conclusion. The health of the Republic has been so utterly destroyed by the bloated degradation of academia that it has driven the Union closer to the point of fatal collapse than ever in its history since the late 1850s. This time, there are not clear geographical divisions arousing national separatist tendencies, but a vast ideological shift that peppers the Union in a terrifying division generally between urban and rural but often without clear delineation. And as explained, there is no clear solution to correct academia; a state takeover with these goals in mind would be contradictingly authoritarian while the way of laissez-faire allows a self-reassuring postmodernist academic elite to fuel the very problems destroying our legal system.
But if there is anything the history of our political experiment has proven, it is that Americans are more capable than any citizenry on earth of surmounting the impossible. We gain nothing by aimlessly lamenting the death of our political system without admitting what lies right before our eyes: the truth that a corrupted academia has caused much of the Union’s existing ills, but the equal truth that Academia is neither unchangeable nor unsalvageable. If the Academy has done anything in the past half-century, it has shown it is capable of enormous change. The time has come to affect change at the source; a rebirth of academia from the poisonous ideals by which it now rules itself and, by proxy, rules our country, a restoration of the historical societies designed to rear a wise governing class, and yes, a return to the traditions we have lost to the false glitter of modernity.
1See Lucas Rodriguez’s Stanford Politics 2016 article The Troubling Partisanship of the Supreme Court. https://stanfordpolitics.org/2016/01/07/troubling-partisanship-supreme-court/
2David French’s National Review article explains this horrific case in greater detail. https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/07/a-dreadful-police-shooting-highlights-the-need-to-change-a-terrible-law/
3 Carolina Cavalier: the Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew p. 19
4 Address Delivered Before the Philanthropic and Dialectic Societies at Chapel-Hill June 20, 1832. https://docsouth.unc.edu/true/gaston/gaston.html