Colleges and Civil Discourse: Buyer Beware

 

Robert George, Princeton University.

Last week the Wall Street Journal published an article on the state of civil discourse in the universities. I was excited to see the piece since the rancor, polarization, and hatred at the university level has been a great concern for me.

I decided to review the colleges with programs on civil discourse that were cited in the piece, most of them quite new. Unfortunately, I discovered that many didn’t meet my expectations for changing the college environment and educating students. In fact, it’s possible that college campuses are getting worse:

In a 2017 survey of more than 3,000 college students from Gallup Inc. and the Knight Foundation, 61% said the climate on their campus stifled certain speech that might be viewed as offensive, up from 54% the prior year. They reported feeling that social-media dialogue was less civil than a year earlier, and that people blocked out views they disagreed with. Pew found in 2016 that 52% of Republicans said Democrats were more closed-minded than other Americans, while 70% of Democrats said the same about Republicans.

Setting the numbers aside, though, doesn’t create much optimism. Although several universities were referenced in the WSJ article as starting or having civil discourse agendas, most of them provided a handful of courses that had that curriculum, but it was unclear whether students would be influenced by only an intellectual approach, particularly with teachers who weren’t open-minded. I also found that several colleges spoke of the importance of civil discourse, but were not starting programs to encourage that change. Strangely enough, some schools encouraged discussions on topics that were a high priority to students on the Left, but not to students on the right; Carleton College in Minnesota had a dozen freshmen living together to study topics such as “race and income inequality.”

Some programs are beginning in fits and starts:

At Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., a 12-person working group on civil discourse found itself embroiled in controversy last winter. Philosophy professor Jennifer McErlean withdrew from the team, calling the leaders of conservative campus groups “evil” for organizing an event featuring Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone and Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe.

Interestingly, Professor McErlean is a big proponent of diversity—just not in discourse.

There are some fine organizations who are offering training in civil discourse, and offer hopeful signs. One is Heterodox Academy founded by Jonathan Haidt:

No matter their background or political ideology, all members of Heterodox Academy have endorsed this statement: ‘I believe that university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other. I am concerned that many academic fields and universities currently lack sufficient viewpoint diversity—particularly political diversity. I will support viewpoint diversity in my academic field, my university, my department, and my classroom.’ Today, Heterodox Academy consists of more than 1,800 professors and graduate student affiliates.

Another organization that is making headway is BridgesUSA. I was encouraged when I saw the list of speakers at a Summit they sponsored and both Jeff Flake and Ben Shapiro were presenters.

But the most encouraging program I found is at Princeton University, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, founded by Robert George. This program’s mission includes the following:

Founded in the summer of 2000, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions in the Department of Politics at Princeton University is dedicated to exploring enduring questions of American constitutional law and Western political thought. The Program is also devoted to examining the application of basic legal and ethical principles to contemporary problems.

Not only are they teaching the foundations of our country, but they are telling their students the following:

Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable. It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions—including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.

Professor George was invited to speak about his program at the UNC Board of Governors and he explained further:

‘We don’t want education to degenerate into indoctrination. Rather, we want to equip and empower our students to think deeply, critically, and for themselves.’ George showed the board members his syllabus for a class on civil liberties that had readings from scholars with diverse perspectives on controversial issues. He also encourages his students to take courses with a liberal professor at Princeton whom he considers to be his polar opposite. ‘We are not interested in creating a conservative safe space or a playground for conservatives.’

Unfortunately, his message didn’t get through to everyone:

Steve Leonard, a political science professor at UNC, said there was nothing revelatory in George’s remarks. ‘That talk could have been delivered by any number of UNC faculty. It’s disappointing, and to some extent, insulting, that the Board of Governors is so unaware of that fact that they would invite someone from the outside to do what a faculty member here in North Carolina could have done.’ Leonard said good faculty everywhere take themselves seriously and provide differing viewpoints in their classrooms.

Ah, that it were so.

Still, there is movement in the efforts toward civil discourse. Some universities will treat it as the latest flavor of the month; others will think that it is another way to promote the agenda of the Left. But there may be enough energy to begin turning the ship around in the direction of civil discourse.

We must be persistent and determined enough to make that happen.

There are 9 comments.

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  1. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos
    @Kephalithos

    Good piece.

    We all know about the fashionable phrase “check your privilege.” Well, I think some of academia’s problems could be solved (or ameliorated, at least) if only professors would willingly check their assumptions. What the average academic means by “civil discourse” is, unfortunately, far more constrained than what you, I, or Jonathan Haidt mean when we utter the same term.

    The thick cultural bubble which enshrouds the academy doesn’t separate people who differ merely in political identification, or in their conclusions about particular issues; it separates people who begin from completely different premises.

    • #1
  2. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Susan Quinn: Still, there is movement in the efforts toward civil discourse. Some universities will treat it as the latest flavor of the month; others will think that it is another way to promote the agenda of the Left. But there may be enough energy to begin turning the ship around in the direction of civil discour

    I wish I shared your optimism. 

    There really can’t be discourse when one side is about power and the extinguishing of other perspectives. 

    Our side thinks the endpoint should be evolving ongoing exchanges of ideas. The other believes it is the endpoint and all other ideas must be driven from public awareness. 

    Our side thinks that morality can only flourish where there is freedom of conscience.  The other wants to be the conscience and dictate morality.

    Old people like me recall when the left was the likes of Hubert Humphrey or Eugene McCarthy.  Those two would be regarded as right-wingers today because they believed in the burden of persuasion and saw a lot of common political ground for Americans.  William Buckley could interview and debate leftists and they could still be friends and respect each other’s views. 

    Today, our universities are actually opposed to the idea of respect for other views.  Silencing and excluding competing vies is called “tolerance”.  A monolithic weirdly racialist perspective is called “diversity.”  And people who advocate free speech, respect for ideas, political freedom and enumerated rights are “haters” and “fascists.”

    The only way the universities will come back is when they hit rock bottom because society refuses to finance indoctrination camps that graduate malignant incompetents.  I once thought that schools would be smart enough to preserve islands of excellence but the leftists are too smart to permit that.  They are going after STEM now.  

    If they achieve Berniesque levels of free federal tuition, then the leftists will have captured the entirety of US education without any more market pressures or freedom of choice. They can rig the deal completely through regulation, accreditation and control the purse strings. One vision, one set of permissible contents.

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  3. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Kephalithos (View Comment):
    The thick cultural bubble which enshrouds the academy doesn’t separate people who differ merely in political identification, or in their conclusions about particular issues; it separates people who begin from completely different premises.

    Indeed. It’s too bad that more of them don’t have the humility to admit that they might have incomplete, if not faulty premises. That’s the only way we can learn is to allow our ideas to be questioned, reflect deeply on why we hold them as we do, and allow for a shift in perspective. Until I actually know everything, @christopherriley, you may challenge me at any time. Like now.  ;-)

    • #3
  4. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    If they achieve Berniesque levels of free federal tuition, then the leftists will have captured the entirety of US education without any more market pressures or freedom of choice. They can rig the deal completely through regulation, accreditation and control the purse strings. One vision, one set of permissible contents.

    @oldbathos, generally in life I am an optimist. Regarding education, am I an optimist if I hold on to hope that things will change? Maybe I’m just an old fool.

    I don’t have the discipline to develop the idea, but I heard someone on a podcast suggest we explain to college age students that all the free stuff that comes from the government comes from their parents tax money. And if we calculate what they expect to be making in the job market, and estimate what they will be paying in taxes, that they will be footing the bill, maybe we could turn them away from socialism. (Ah, I believe it was @peterrobinson) Of course, how to reach them with that information is the challenge. But I like it!

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  5. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos
    @Kephalithos

    Old Bathos (View Comment): Our side thinks the endpoint should be evolving ongoing exchanges of ideas. The other believes it is the endpoint and all other ideas must be driven from public awareness.

    Exactly.

    The old ideal held that conclusions ought to emerge from the process of education. The new ideal begins with certain conclusions.

    What’s the point of the university, then? To promote political activism, and to increase the complexity of those theories which flow from the accepted conclusions.

    It’s akin to a genetic bottleneck, but with ideas. And just as genetic bottlenecks can lead to inbreeding and deformities, so, too, intellectual bottlenecks can lead to . . . what Brian Watt wrote about yesterday.

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  6. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    The dirty little secret is other than math, engineering, and the sciences (the real ones), a person can get a great liberal arts education on his own without a freakin’ college diploma.  There are things like The Great Courses, and there are online alternatives out there.

    My grandfather used to say you could get a BA in Liberal Arts if you read the Harvard Classics from cover to cover (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_Classics).  I haven’t done it, but I do own my grandfather’s first edition set of the Harvard Classics . . .

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  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    @christopherriley and @oldbathos, I guess my biggest concern is that conservatives appear to be giving up. Yes, it’s ugly. Yes, it’s going to be difficult. But I hate to think that we are just going to complain and not do anything! We let them get away with this approach to education. We weren’t vigilant. We didn’t intercede. We didn’t protest. We let it happen. And now I feel as if people are saying, well, golly, now it’s too late. I may be angry with the Left, but (and I’m not just directing this specifically to you guys), I’m very disappointed at the resignation I see on the Right. No, I don’t have ready solutions, but I sure as heck am going to celebrate any legitimate changes.

    • #7
  8. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos
    @Kephalithos

    Susan Quinn (View Comment): @christopherriley and @oldbathos, I guess my biggest concern is that conservatives appear to be giving up. Yes, it’s ugly. Yes, it’s going to be difficult. But I hate to think that we are just going to complain and not do anything! We let them get away with this approach to education. We weren’t vigilant. We didn’t intercede. We didn’t protest. We let it happen. And now I feel as if people are saying, well, golly, now it’s too late. I may be angry with the Left, but (and I’m not just directing this specifically to you guys), I’m very disappointed at the resignation I see on the Right. No, I don’t have ready solutions, but I sure as heck am going to celebrate any legitimate changes.

    I don’t plan to give up. I plan to embed myself in the system, then feed subtle, countercultural ideas (read: common sense) to my colleagues. If this earns me their ire, so be it. I’ve joined FIRE, just in case.

    For what it’s worth, I think the free-speech issue is a great way of uniting people who’d otherwise despise each other. There’s nothing inherently political about supporting freedom of speech or civil discourse. It’s the censors who make it so.

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  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    I don’t plan to give up. I plan to embed myself in the system, then feed subtle, countercultural ideas (read: common sense) to my colleagues. If this earns me their ire, so be it. I’ve joined FIRE, just in case.

    For what it’s worth, I think the free-speech issue is a great way of uniting people who’d otherwise despise each other. There’s nothing inherently political about supporting freedom of speech or civil discourse. It’s the censors

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    I don’t plan to give up. I plan to embed myself in the system, then feed subtle, countercultural ideas (read: common sense) to my colleagues. If this earns me their ire, so be it. I’ve joined FIRE, just in case.

    For what it’s worth, I think the free-speech issue is a great way of uniting people who’d otherwise despise each other. There’s nothing inherently political about supporting freedom of speech or civil discourse. It’s the censors who make it so.

    Impressive, Christopher. FIRE is a great organization. I’m not sure how much of an inroad we can make of free speech, since anything the Left doesn’t like is hate speech, but it wasn’t always that way. I wonder how we can reach the parents of these kids, too, since they’re likely footing part of the bill. But I’ll think about free speech–if there’s a way to break through. Thanks.
    who make it so.

    • #9

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