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Edmund Burke University: The Quest for Community

Edmund Burke University: The Quest For Community


Higher education institutions need to house their students and provide shelter for them while enrolled in school. This is known as residential life. Residential life is now a sophisticated auspice of the university and ubiquitous to campuses nationwide.

One common goal of residential life in higher education is building community. While this may sound simple, community is a highly nuanced concept that requires an in depth discussion. In this article, the issue of community and higher education is explored. This article is predicated on the following argument: community is a classical conservative value, requiring conservative means to achieve a conservative end. Higher education institutions attempt to build community using contemporary liberal means, creating an incongruence. Residential life must change the way it attempts to build community- both in theory and in practice- if they wish to build true community in the residence halls.

The majority of the discussion explores community from a theoretical perspective. This includes the work of Edmund Burke, Robert Nisbet, and other scholars. Following that, a section on implementation of the theory occurs, then a section on challenges, followed by the conclusion.

Three important notes to express.  The first is on the title of the article. Edmund Burke is considered the first real communitarian. His insight into the human condition and his understanding of human nature makes him just as relevant today as he was in his time, the mid-to-late 1700’s. The quest for community (1953) is the title of Robert Nisbet’s most famous work. He is another highly influential communitarian whose scholarship is used throughout.

The second important note is that this paper speaks of the normative practices of higher education in the broader sense. There are thousands of higher education institutions in this country, so there is of course tremendous variation in residential life practices.  The argument here is predicated on the normative standards of residential life familiar to the majority of the college-educated populace within the past 20-30 years.

This practice assumes the following pattern: As freshman, students are assigned to a dormitory. For sophomore year, the students are then allowed to leave their freshman dormitories and move via their autonomous choice to other dorms. Usually by junior year students are allowed to move off-campus, should they choose. The same pattern occurs until graduation (Winston, 1993). There are certainly schools that do not conform to these generalizations, but this is the normative standard.

The third note relates to the definitions of the terms liberal and conservative. Nisbet (1966) defines liberalism as a devotion to the individual and his ever increasing liberties and freedoms, supported by the three pillars of equity, autonomy, and the language of rights (Nisbet, 1966). Nisbet (1966) defines conservatism as coming from the feudal tradition where the family unit is the central unit of life, supported by the three pillars of community, authority, and the sacred.

Next, the theoretical sections. What is community, why it is incongruent with the normative practices of higher education, and what true community consists of is discussed below.

What is Community?

Nisbet defined community as something that, “includes but goes beyond local community to encompass religion, work, family, and culture; it refers to social bonds characterized by emotional cohesion, depth, continuity and fullness” (1966, p. 7). He further said that, “Its archetype, both historically and symbolically, is the family, and in almost every type of genuine community the nomenclature of family is prominent” (p. 48). To distill the essence of these definitions is to define the tenets of true community. Community needs more than just mere proximity; community needs continuity in time, a joint sense of morality, and to resemble the family structure. Carey and Frohnen defined community as something where people “share something in common-something important enough to give rise to fellowship . . . and sustain it. . . . But each must form around characteristics, experiences, practices, and beliefs that are important enough to bind the members to one another” (1998, pp. 1-2).

Community requires more than just mere geographic presence. Simply because you live near someone does not mean that you live together. Benjamin Disraeli, former Prime Minister of England, wrote in his book, Sybill (1845), that the British were living adjacent to each other but lacked genuine community; their communities were eroded by the Industrial Revolution. The British were living without the things, “that are important enough to bind the members to one another” (Carey and Frohnen, 1998, pp. 1-2).

One salient issue of community for higher education that Nisbet mentioned is the idea of continuity in time. This is particularly germane to higher education because of the autonomy the students are given from year to year in choosing where they live.

Continuity In Time & Limited Autonomy

Continuity in time creates stability from one generation to the next. Continuity in time links the past with the present with the future. As Burke knew, without continuity in time, “No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer” (Burke, 1790, para. 162).

When change is the only constant, continuity in time is impossible. This renders linking generations impossible. The problem with making change and autonomy the central tenets of your community is that it necessitates that each new generation starts from scratch. As Russell Kirk once said, “every rising generation will challenge the principles of personal and social order, and will learn wisdom only through agony” (Kirk, 1969, p. 17). James Fitzjames Stephens articulated a different, but nonetheless important sentiment: “The fixed principles and institutions of society express not merely the present opinions of the ruling part of the community, but the accumulated results of centuries of experience” (As quoted by Muller, 1997, p. 204). Our communities contain the wisdom of our ancestors, bequeathed to us. Without continuity in time, we cut ourselves off from the past, and we must learn everything anew the hard way. Sir Roger Scruton articulated that the problem of cutting ourselves off from the past is that it has the adverse effect of cutting ourselves off from the future as well, invalidating our duties to posteriety: “Inevitably, therefore, they lose the sense of obligation to the unborn. The web of obligations shrinks to the present tense” (N.D., para. 30).

The idea of believing that the dead and the yet-unborn, while not physically present, are still nonetheless with us, is called, “The democracy of the dead” (Chesterton, 1908). By emphasizing autonomy we are ignoring the democracy of the dead, and we are preventing continuity in time. This leaves us only thinking of the present. Burke understood that we, as human beings, are only guests in the present world. He described us in the present as, “the temporary possessors and life-renters” (1790, para. 162). Burke knew the importance of keeping the dead and yet-unborn in our minds. When the dead and the yet-unborn cease existing concurrently in the minds of the present generation, then they are, “unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters” (Burke, 1790, para. 162). Their absence from our minds makes us feel as though we have the right to dismantle at our:

“pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances, as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers” (Burke, 1790, para. 162).

We must view the dead and the yet-unborn in our thoughts to ensure a sense of both gratitude to the past and stewardship for the future.

This applies not just to the dead, but to all of those who came before us, because, “We are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants” (Bernard of Charters, as quoted by Kirk, 1984, p. 27). We can only reach as far as we can because of those who came before us. As Tocqueville knew, autonomy rules the hearts of Americans; the chains linking generations have been abandoned, and the wisdom of our ancestors falls on deaf ears (Tocqueville, 1840).

The way to preserve continuity in time, honor those who came before us, and maintain the wisdom of our ancestors embodied in our institutions is by voluntarily accepting restrains on our freedom. This is known as authority, or the totality of normative restraints imposed on the individual (Nisbet, 1966). These restraints are designed to channel our unruly passions like flowing water. When the restraints are removed, our passions and appetites run amok, flowing like water escaping a broken dam (Muller, 1997). As Burke said (1791)

“Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. . . .Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”

Burke believed in limiting autonomy because unlimited autonomy will lead us astray. We need to accept these restraints on our passions and appetites with regards to continuity in time to foster strong communities worth living in.

One of the key tools in this struggle with our unruly passions and appetites is habit or character education. Aristotle’s Nochmachean Ethics is the godfather of character education through habituation. He believed that, “The virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature, but we are by nature able to acquire them, and reach our complete perfection through habit” (as quoted by Muller, 1997, p. 19).  Frohnen (1996) defined character as, “the collection of habits that makes up the bulk of our personality” (p. 4). He continued, when he said, “Our character traits determine how we treat others. And many people now recognize that the way we treat one another determines whether we will have a worthwhile life and live in a worthwhile society” (Frohnen, 1996, p. 4). Burke (1796) opined that, “The secret, unseen, but irrefragable bond of habitual intercourse holds them together, even when perverse and litigious nature set them to. . . fight” (p. 8). What Burke meant when he said the “bond of habitual intercourse holds them together” is that repeated interactions build trust and “the, social bonds characterized by emotional cohesion, depth, continuity and fullness” (Nisbet, 1966, p. 7) that Nisbet said are germane to true community.

Essentially, these quotes articulate the idea of building good habits and repeated positive interactions that teach us to live virtuously with our neighbors. The term for this is social capital. As Norman (2013) said, “Individually, good habits become internalized into virtues; collectively, they create institutions, and the result is what would now be called social capital or trust” (p. 208). As Robert Putnam (2007) explained, there are two kinds of social capital: bridging and bonding. Bridging social capital connects those who are different from one another. This could mean different races, political ideologies, or even fans of opposing sports teams. The other kind of social capital he discussed is bonding. Bonding social capital is when people of similarities retreat inward to their own kind, like a turtle retreating to its shell. This is the bad kind of social capital. When we have bonding social capital, we lose the commonality that brings us together.

Logically, the question that follows is how do we create bridging social capital in our communities? We know that community entails continuity in time, the wisdom of experience through authoritative institutions, character education, and the trust built through repeated interactions. But how do we combine these ideas into a functioning community? The answer is found in the intersection of authority, autonomy, order, and equity.

Oder and Authority vs. Autonomy and Equity.

In building true community, authority, order, and a shared purpose are paramount. The enemies of community are equity, autonomy, overemphasizing the individual, and an overemphasis on rights.

The problem with equity in community is that it disrupts the idea of order. As Weaver (1948) said, “If society is something which can be understood, it must have structure; if it has structure, it must have hierarchy” (p. 32). He further opined: “But hierarchy requires a common assumption about ends, and that is why the competing ideologies of our age produce confusion” (p. 33). The main competing ideology with authority, order, and hierarchy is equity. Equity, meaning the idea that people and things are equal, is destructive to structure and hierarchy. Weaver elaborated: “Equality is a disorganizing concept in so far as human relationships mean order. It is order without design; it attempts a meaningless and profitless regimentation of . . . the scheme of things” (1948, p. 38).

The disorganizing effect equity causes relates not just to an individual’s place in the world, but to our shared place in our communities. Equity disorganizes communities because it erodes standards of right and wrong. If everyone and everything are equal, establishing standards regarding right and wrong is impossible; no one can establish authority over anyone else. As Frohnen (1996) stated, “Refusing to insist on universal standards of right and wrong . . . are left with only one common, shared value: love of oneself and one’s own beliefs. We are afraid to insist on standards” (p. 176). Establishing order, which is predicated on those “universal standards of right and wrong,” (Frohnen, 1996, p. 176) is impossible. Establishing firm boundaries of good and evil, right and wrong are necessary because, “they lie at the heart of the very meaning of the social order; to refuse them is the way to the civic graveyard” (Sellbourne, 1997, p. xiii). Without firm definitions of right and wrong, our evil inclinations will run amok unnoticed.

Lowell-Stone offered a similar critique of equity, albeit with a different consequence: “equality fosters individualism- the tendency based on calm judgments to isolate oneself with one’s family and friends with no civic concern” (1998, p. 135). When individualism is the primacy of the civic-order, “‘living for oneself’ and living ‘living for nobody’ becomes hard to distinguish” (Sellbourne, 1997, p. 52).

Equity, a warm and fuzzy concept on paper, is atomizing and prevents ideas and people from coalescing. As Tocqueville discovered, equity causes man’s opinions to be an, “intellectual dust, scattered on every side, unable to collect, unable to cohere. (1840, p. 406)

The previous paragraphs delineate the theory on what equity, autonomy, and individualism produce. The question then necessitates asking: Are institutions of higher education encouraging this behavior? What are the normative practices of higher education like? Does higher education support this individualism? And what of the students? What does the research say about them?

Individualism In Higher Education

Higher education in America initially began as a training ground for the children of the wealthy and for the religious education of future ministers in their local communities in the 1600’s (Lucas, 1994; Thelin, 2004). These institutions of higher education used prescriptive curriculums with a series of courses pre-determined for each year of study (Kronman, 2007; Thelin, 2004; Lucas, 1994).

It was not until Charles Eliot, former President of Harvard University, advocated for an elective curriculum predicated on individual autonomy and freedom did things change (Delbanco, 2012). Eliot, “methodically and persistently integrated the elective principle into every aspect of Harvard life. . . . In 1872 all subject requirements for seniors were abolished” (Denham, 2002, p. 8). James McCosh, President of Princeton University, advocated for the preservation of the prescriptive curriculum against Eliot (Delbanco, 2012). According to Denton (2002, p. 9), McCosh

“Was wary of unbridled freedom and believed that if given the opportunity, students would take the easy way out. He argued that unrestricted freedom created a negative environment in which faculty and students could do as they pleased, resulting in the disappearance of a uniform college experience.”

McCosh recognized that by removing the restraints on the passions and appetites of the individual, they would run amok. He believed that the values of equity and autonomy would destroy community in higher education. Eliot’s autonomous university won the debate and became the normative standard we have in higher education today.

Nisbet (1971) describes another phenomenon in higher education that lead to increased individualism: academic capitalism. Nisbet used the term to reference the impact WWII and the Cold War had in incentivizing the university to pursue government and business sponsored lucrative contracts (1971).  Rhoades and Slaughter defined academic capitalism as, “the involvement of colleges and faculty in market-like behaviors and [sic] has become a key feature of higher education in the United States” (Rhoades and Slaughter, 2004, p. 37). An example of academic capitalism is the Bayh-Dole act of 1980, a legislative act that gave the university intellectual property rights over intellectual property created with federal money. This act ushered in the contemporary academic capitalist movement (Rhoades and Slaughter, 2004).

John Searle, as quoted by Schneider, in Higher education for the public good: Emerging voices from a national movement, described American higher education as, “what one might call extreme . . . individualism . . . . The idea is that the most precious thing in the universe is the human individual” (2005, p. 131).  Schneider continued: “the thrust of the twentieth-century approach to liberal education was highly individualistic, both in principle and in practice. Conceptually, liberal education in the twentieth century sought to help each student maximize his or her individual potential” (2005, p. 133). This individualization solidified the idea that: “each college student’s course of study, was for all practical purposes, highly individualized. The result was that liberal education came to be seen as individual enhancement- an investment in self-authorship with benefits to be realized across the lifespan” (Schneider, 2005, p. 134).

The research on American college students corroborates the emphasis on the individual. Our students are the most individualistic in the world. The work of Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan (2010) revealed fascinating information on the state of the American college-educated citizens. They found that American-college educated people rationalize their choices more than non-college-educated Americans (p. 16); Further, “Although Americans are the most individualistic people in the world, American undergraduates score higher on some measures of individualism than do their non-college-educated counterparts, particularly for those aspects associated with self-actualization, uniqueness, and locus of control” (p. 16); additionally, “conformity motivations were found to be weaker among college-educated Americans than among non-college educated Americans” (p. 16); including, “Non-college-educated adults are embedded in more tightly structured social networks than are college students” (p. 16); and that, “The moral reasoning of college-educated Americans occurs almost exclusively within the ethic of autonomy, whereas non-college-educated Americans use the ethics of community and divinity” (p. 16). This ultra-individualization is anathema to the idea of community and trust.

Our universities must figure out how to elevate the ethic of community and reduce the ethic of autonomy. One way to create an ordered community not predicated on autonomous individuals who occupy the same space, but are not truly living communally is to create a duty-centric community. The opposite of a right is a duty (Kirk, 1954). Because of this diametric opposition, they are discussed conjunctively below.

Rights and Duties

Muler (1997) defines duty as, “the subjective acceptance of existing social rules conveyed through socialization and habit” (p. 11). Duty “helps to define the bounds of license but, in so doing, simultaneously to demarcate the proper scope of the individual freedom and to protect it” (Sellbourne, 1997, 167). Accepting a duty-centric life not only builds community and establishes order, but it actually helps protect rights and freedom. The presence of a duty-centric ideology, “aids in the cure of that extreme form of ‘individualism’ . . . which is found in the citizens of the corrupted liberal order” (Sellbourne, 1997, p. 167).  Duty weeds out the toxic individualism and replaces it with sound individualism. To accomplish this winnowing, you must habituate a person to her duty. This is the same concept of habit education previously detailed that creates virtuous citizens. To create a duty-centric individual, cultivate duty-centric habits.

And when duties are ignored and primacy is placed on rights? “Man’s rights are linked with man’s duties, and when they are distorted into extravagant claims for a species of freedom and equality and worldly advancement which human character is not designed to sustain, they degenerate from rights into vices” (Kirk, 1951, para. 52). When rights are divorced from duties, they turn into unearned entitlements and create a toxic culture of vice afflicted individuals.

The culture of rights without duties originates as one of the main tenets and remnants of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, particularly through the work of Thomas Paine (Levin, 2013). McMahon (2001) said that this emphasis on rights originated from, “radical individualism- the core of the Philosophes ethics- was a complete denial of social responsibility” (p. 29).  The uncoupling of rights from duties is dangerous and disastrous for continuity in time, authority, order, and community. The incorrect presumption of the Philosophes is that a person should cast of the shackles off duty in order to pursue a personal interest; these interests are spoken of in the language of rights and manifest themselves as entitlements. This is unsound indulgent individualism.

Living our lives with rights and no correspondent duties is unnatural. Even when we are consciously exercising our rights, like when we voluntarily chose to live in a community, the correspondent “duties are all compulsive” (Burke, 1791, p. 443) that come with living there. Burke understood that the duties of living in a community may not be negotiated for, but are still compulsory of us. Simply because we did not actively consent to and negotiate for these responsibilities does not preclude their existence. The archetype for this model of non-bargained for duties is the family unit. He said:

“But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform. Parents may not be consenting to their moral relation; but consenting or not, they are bound to a long train of burthensome duties towards those with whom they have never made a convention of any sort. Children are not consenting to their relation, but their relation, without their actual consent, binds them to its duties; or rather it implies their consent, because the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things” (Burke, 1791, p. 443).

Living in a community, like being born into a family, is not necessarily consented to, but still comes bundled with compulsory duties. Burke was a firm believer in the primacy of the family unit in society because the first place we learn of obligations and duty is in our families. We are born first and foremost into families; our families serve as the first and most important method of socialization. As Sellbourne (1997) said,

“The archetype of individual obligation to others is to be found in the ethical and practical responsibility of parents for the well-being of their children, who with their parents, compose the first association of human beings in which the individual is destined to find himself. The sense, or knowledge of the individual citizen’s moral and practical duty to his fellows. . .  is derived from experience . . . of this association” (p. 172).

The family unit is the central unit of life which first inculcates our understanding of duty and obligation. Our families are the first and foremost place where we learn to love. That love then grows outward from our family, to our friends, to our community, to our state, and then to our country. It does not work backwards. In his time, Burke said something similar to Sellbourne:

“We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighbourhoods, and our habitual provincial connexions. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill” (1790, para. 331).

The love of country and neighbor start first and foremost in the family and then work their way upwards from local associations to national ones. This must translate to residential life in higher education at the lowest level of attachment and not come from the top down. This is the principal of subsidiary. This idea will recur in the section on best practices for higher education.

The previous paragraphs illuminate the link between the nomenclature of family, duty, and community. By thinking of our communities as extensions of our families, the duties and responsibilities of family are clearly seen and understood as the same duties and responsibilities owed to our communities. Finally, the last theoretical section is related to private property and the work associated with it. Community must take place not theoretically, but in an actual physical place.

Private Property

One of the essential elements of community is the physical land it occupies. Just as community is modeled on the family unit, private property and the family unit share an undeniable link too. Burke said the following: “The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself” (Burke, 1790, para. 83). As a student of Burke, Muller (1997) shared his belief regarding the importance of private property and family: “the centrality of the family as a socializing institution for the formation of moral character, and the protection of private property, which serves as a means of expressing familial commitments” (p. 97).  The preservation of the family property acts, by proxy, as a visual reminder of the duties and temporal commitments of family. Polin, in Olaf-Blum’s translation of de Bonald’s work (2006), articulated the idea that, “Families being the brick that natural society is built with, it is only natural that property become the mortar that binds them together and also holds each of them together” (p. xx). The family plot is essential in creating stability and keeping continuity in time. This is why many of the anti-enlightenment thinkers like de Bonald were against the elimination of primogeniture and entail inheritance laws (Olaf-Blum, 2006). Families, communities, private property, duty, and order all share characteristics that serve as the bedrock for living meaningful lives.

Preservation of the family and maintaining the family property are duty centric responsibilities. When the duties of preservation and the stewardship for the next generation are abandoned, the family becomes atomized, and the individual thinks almost exclusively in terms of his selfish interests. As Tocqueville said, “Where family pride ceases to act, individual selfishness comes into play. When the idea of family becomes vague, indeterminate, and uncertain, a man thinks of his present convenience; he provides for . . . the next generation no more” (1840, p. 49). Institutions of higher education must treat the residence halls like the family private property. This ideology enables the practice of posterity. When they stick to the ideology of the autonomous individual, they are left with the flies of summer.

Returning to Polin (2006), he claimed that there is no better “foundation for individual freedom than material independence, which means some kind of self-sufficiency, in other words some land you can live off. . . . Where there is no property, there is no freedom” (p. xxi). The university must require the students to labor on and maintain the residence halls themselves. This will teach them self-sufficiency and cultivate a culture of independence and freedom. By requiring the students to work and maintain their residence halls, they can better understand the truth to this thought. The residence halls, as an ersatz family property, are places where the students can work together, live independently, and live freely. It is through this work that sound habituation of duty takes place. The residence halls serve as the incubator for it.

When Tocqueville said, “When the idea of family becomes vague, indeterminate, and uncertain, a man thinks of his present convenience; he provides for . . . the next generation no more” (1840, p. 49), he was articulating the importance of permanence and continuity in time embodied in the family property.  Higher education institutions need to create permanence in their student’s housing assignments to maintain continuity in time and ensure the relationship that Scruton (N.D., para 30) was talking about between the previous generations, the current generations, and the future generations.

Community Building in Residential Life

The most obvious practice that higher education needs to change to increase opportunities to construct legitimate communities is to remove the autonomy that the students have in the residence halls. A student must remain in the residence hall that she is assigned to for all four years of college (barring extenuating circumstances). This will surely increase the continuity in time, will generate a greater sense of ownership in the residence hall as private property, will create a stable foundation for routine habituation, and foster trust and social capital through repeated interactions. Sellbourne (1997) said, “the greater the individual’s ‘autonomy’ the less not only his sense of obligation to the civic order, but the less . . . his affiliation to the community to which he belongs” (p. 53).

The second action necessary is eliminating the notion of equity in the residence halls and instituting authoritative hierarchies. Hierarchies will establish order in the residence halls for maintenance, labor, and social activities.  The first obvious hierarchy is a natural one, predicated on seniority. The seniors stand highest in the pecking order and freshmen the lowest. The second one is talent based. People’s talents, energies, and abilities are all different. If given the chance, these qualities will emerge via labor and social capital building activities in the residence halls. Natural leadership and followership will occur.

The university must make an effort to eliminate rights centric talk and create a duty-centric atmosphere for the students. This may sound contradictory to the idea previously mentioned where love of country starts not at the top and trickles down to the individuals, but that it starts with the families and works its way up to the top. The university must only really be responsible for introducing the language and the concept. The universities will instruct residence life staff to use this language in the residence halls, creating a grass-roots approach utilizing the principal of subsidiary.

One off-beat idea involves synchronous motion. Both Haidt (2013) and McNeil (1954) discuss the role of synchronous motion in cultivating a stronger group identity. Marching together, synchronous calisthenics, group yoga, group mediation, group singing, or any activity where students keep together in time will turn “me” into “we” like magic (Haidt, 2013; McNeil 1954).

Implementing some of these ideas may come with resistance. The next section addresses the challenges an institution will face in implementation.


Equity as a moral foundation in the residence halls creates a world without standards for right and wrong. This makes teaching students the difference between right and wrong impossible. We teach students how to think, instead of what to think (Haidt, 2003; Hunter, 2000). This is the switch from character ethics to quandary ethics (Haidt, 2003; Hunter, 2000). The problem with this approach is that it creates moral diversity, which is the bad kind of diversity (Haidt, 2003). If we are taught how to think, and not what to think, we are not necessarily learning the difference between right and wrong. Moral diversity for things like stealing and cheating means that some think it’s ok while others do not. This is problematic. It emphasizes logic over morals. Logically, if I need a computer, but don’t have one, stealing one is sound logic. I now have a computer, I didn’t before, and it did not cost any money. This is sound logic, but unsound morals.

Character education via habituation will be difficult to implement because it requires a firm position on right and wrong. Coming to a consensus in a world where equality reigns supreme will prove challenging. There must be a sense of moral order imposed on others. An equity-centric institution like higher education will meet this idea with resistance because it imposes values on others who may not accept them.

Additionally challenging is the pervasive penetration of critical theory on campus. Critical theory examines existing institutions and questions them (Walsh, 2016). For example, is capitalism the best economic system, or did capitalists just exploit poorer and less developed indigenous peoples? Is our curriculum really good, or is it just the thoughts of dead white men who were in power that are telling us it is good? Critical theory is predicated questioning society, societal inequities, societal structures, and societal power allocation. The fundamental tenet of critical theory: that human beings are born good/pure/benevolent, but society is evil and corrupts us (Babbitt, 1924). It is challenging to convince students to build their own society on campus when they are consistently taught that society is the evil that corrupts us in the first place. Critical theory is poisoning the hearts and minds of our students and makes cooperation between people of different race, gender, and sexual orientation difficult. Our students are constantly told that everything is society’s fault, and that the struggle for good and evil is not in the breast of the individual. This logic creates a cycle of victimhood because the students are never responsible for their choices or portions, but rather are victims of society. Someone else is always to blame for their portions. This victimhood mentality also creates a sense of hostility and outrage with the world.

These critical theorists believe society violates their fictitious rules, and they are therefore free to reject it. It is extremely challenging to cultivate a strong sense of community with critical theory gaining such popularity among students. Hayek commented on the beliefs of the critical theorists and the demand for social justice, saying,  “since man has himself created the institutions of society and civilization, he must also be able to alter them at will so as to satisfy his desires or wishes” (As quoted by Muller, 1997, p. 318). Hayek (1973) further said, “Society has simply become the new deity to which we complain and clamour for redress if it does not fulfill the expectations it has created” (as quoted by Muller, 1997, p. 329). It is “society” as a vague quixotic objective that our students and professors now point the finger of blame at in an empty and hollow gesture.

Critical theorists and social justice advocates feel owed something in a retributivist fashion from society or the university. As victims of society, they owe no reciprocal obligation to society or the university. This rationale is also symptomatic of rights without duties:

“Under the rule of dutiless right and demand-satisfaction, the citizen . . . insists upon his dutiless or absolute rights as citizen . . . on the one hand and upon the rightless duties to him of the civic order, or of its instrument, the state, on the other” (Sellbourne, 1997, p. 189).

The individual endowed with rights and no correspondent duty has no obligation as a citizen or to the university, but society, the state, or the university, is bound to a reciprocal duty to the individual. This is a toxic and selfish idea.

In an almost identical fashion as critical theory, the idea of social justice is ubiquitous on college campuses today. Social justice is predicated on the natural goodness of men corrupted by society as Rousseau (1762) believed. From that premise comes the idea of fixing societal inequities like racism, privilege, and cultural appropriation (Sowell, 2002). The most important thing to understand about the social justice scholarship with regards to racism, privilege, and cultural appropriation is the following: they are all predicated on power structure (Sowell, 2002). What this means, in theory, is that because non-white men have never really been in power, they cannot be racist, appropriate culture, or have privilege.

And what does this mean in practice? It means that identical acts committed by both White men and non-White men are only considered racist, privileged, or an act of appropriating culture if perpetrated by the former (Sowell, 2002). For example, at UC Berkeley, social justice advocates formed a, “human chain to stop white students from getting to class” (Richardson, 2016). This is not considered racist according to social justice scholarship because white people have been in power, therefore it is the duty of the social justice advocate to remove them from power, yanking them down. It would be racist if white people prevented non-white people from entering campus according to the social justice theory.

Another way of phrasing what this amounts to in the real word is “weaponized-envy” (Sowell, 2002; Schoeck, 1987; de la Mora, 2000). The hallmark of envy is that is it not about the envious rising up to the level of the envied, but rather the envious yanking the envied down; it’s not about your success, but rather about rooting for someone else to fail; it’s not about you having what someone else has, but making sure they don’t have it (Sowell, 2002; Schoeck, 1987; de la Mora, 2000). In the example provided, preventing the white students from getting to class did not bring anyone else up, rather it only yanks white people down; the social justice advocates are not interested in acquiring for themselves, but are only interested in making sure white people cannot have something; they are actively rooting for and contributing to the failure of white people.

Envy is masquerading as scholarship. It should be quite obvious that one cannot build a real community when weaponized-envy is the basis of social life and thought. In a similar vein as society blaming, the Marxist concept of global citizenship also corrupts local communal bonds. Frohnen said:

“The notion that we should love all men equally and seek equally to serve them all would seem to undermine the basis of any substantive community. We are embedded in families and local associations, not mankind. Thus to call on us to love all men equally would loosen the local ties that foster virtue” (1996, p. 49).

Global citizenship is a naïve lie that many of our professors and university administrators are pushing on our students. Global citizenship undermines and contradicts our local associations which come first before vague ideas of global humanity. This is another quixotic quest. These ideas are all well intending in theory, but lack a true understanding of the human condition in practice.

An additional challenge facing community builders in higher education is the astronomically expensive cost of tuition. The high cost of school burdens young people with enormous amounts of debt. Students are therefore forced to think of college in terms of return on investment. Norman (2013) explains that when we place money at the primacy of accomplishment, rampant individualism ensues. He says, “Moreover, the evidence on money priming suggests that societies that emphasize financial success have the effect of making their members more greedy, more selfish, and more individualistic” (p. 273). It is quite the challenge to convince a student who’s indebted up to her armpits to not prioritize money. How, in good conscious, can an institution convince someone to care about others, build community, and not think about their own transactional relationships when college costs an arm and a leg?

This is the single most difficult barrier of all to overcome. In books like Academically Adrift (2011) and Paying for the party (2013), the authors articulate the nature of many college students today. Students are learning less, partying more, and because they’re paying so much money in tuition, see themselves less as students subservient to the universities’ authority, and more as paying customers entitled to goods and services for their tuition. The nature of this relationship makes establishing legitimate community near impossible.


Under the current traditions and normative practices of residential life in higher education, building true community is impossible. Our students have too much autonomy, are too individualistic, and the pedagogy in the classrooms is too critical-theory-centric. The emancipated individual, free from ties and restraints, empowered with the language of rights, sees anything that restricts her autonomous right to choose as immoral. The individualistic, autonomous, equitable, rights centric person is one who epitomizes liberalism (Nisbet, 1966). Should universities want to build true communities, they must embrace conservative values.  The conservative places the family at the center of society, believes in authoritative restraints on the passions and appetites of the individual, hierarchies, is duty-centric, values private property, and lauds traditions as a place to build social capital.

It is unlikely that any university will do away with autonomy, equity, and the emancipated individual’s rights to choose. It is especially hard to convince a student to be duty-centric with tuition so high. Universities are indoctrinating their students with the ideologies of social justice, critical theory, and global-citizenship. These ideas undermine the local associations that we are foremost embedded in.

Finally, the universities themselves cannot believe that community starts at the top, and trickles down to the bottom. They must believe the opposite, which is what Burke meant when he said:

“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind” (Burke, 1790, para. 75).

Burke was right all along. Love of country starts in the family, then works its way upwards to local community, to town, to city, to state, and then to country. Love of university will commence in the same pattern: from the individual in our little platoons known as the residence halls upwards to the institution at large.

Under the current conditions and liberal assumptions, higher education institutions and residential life communities will never be able to create legitimate communities. They will always have people living together, but they will never truly live-together. If and only if higher education residential life institutions adopt conservative values like authority, hierarchies, continuity in time, duty, and emphasize traditions will true community ever blossom into a cultural reality.



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Steven KesslerSteven Kessler

Steven Kessler

Steven Kessler received his Ed.D. from the University of Rochester in Higher Education Administration. He is the Edmund Burke Society Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. He has published in places like "The Conservative," "The European Conservative," "The Imaginative Conservative," and "The Journal of Liberal Arts and Sciences."

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