Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Barrett and the Need for Intellectual Diversity


Ann Althouse is always worth reading, but she has absolutely been on fire throughout Wisconsin’s Kevin Barrett controversy.  In her latest extended entry  she takes on Stanley Fish’s recent op-ed in the NYT (no link because of the Times subscription firewall) where Fish attacks partisan advocacy in the classroom.  Ann and others rightly note the considerable difficulties presented by a flat ban against classroom advocacy. Where is the line between education and advocacy?  Don’t we want some forms of advocacy (like advocacy against racism)?  Shouldn’t academia function as the conscience of the country?

This controversy comes right back to the holy grail of the conservative academic freedom movement: true intellectual diversity.  While the education/advocacy line is important (and I tend to agree with Fish here . . . that academics should not be classroom advocates), arguments of that sort — and even substantive measures designed to address classroom indoctrination — will be nothing more than damage control until the central issue is resolved.  If conservatives (including, gasp, social conservatives) had a real voice in university faculties, the education/advocacy line would become much less controversial. 

For one thing, intellectually diverse faculties would lead to more diverse hiring committees and a decreased likelihood that the Barretts and Churchills of the world sneak through the review process.  Intellectually diverse faculties would be much more likely to closely examine scholarly writings and substantive academic work rather than fall for ideological platitudes.  Groupthink does not tend to enhance the decision-making process.

Moreover, as a practical matter, advocacy would be far more palatable in an intellectually diverse department.  The lack of ideological consensus would mean that nonsense like entire academic departments advocating (and enforcing) a particular view of “social justice” would simply stop.  Moreover, the presence of different viewpoints (and thus different forms of advocacy) would lessen the feeling that students are subjected to a non-stop process of ideological re-education.  Instead, they would experience something good: the marketplace of ideas.

Please note, however, that the analysis changes for secondary schools. There, with classroom topics fixed by school boards, large-scale standardized tests designed to compare students’ knowledge across school districts, and with children still (constitutionally, morally, and practically) under the authority of their parents, the education/advocacy line must be drawn . . . and drawn as brightly as possible.


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