The Corner

Education

Viewpoint Diversity on Campus

So I’ve been criticized for not talking about the actual content of higher education — that is, for being negligent about specific “content” as opposed to “method” in general. Higher education isn’t mainly about picking up the flexible skills required for critical thinking, problem solving, and so forth. That’s because high-level literacy depends on deep immersion in content. And high-level communication — or, better, sharing of knowledge and opinion — depends on a shared immersion in lots of content. Not only that, but the recent hyper-emphasis on “how” students learn rather than “what” they learn is a big factor in emptying out the mission diversity in American higher education. It seems like every school in the country is trying to reconfigure everything around “high-impact practices”; each claiming that that change will bring something distinctive to its campus.

I’ve also been criticized for putting my hopes for the future into sustaining the wonderful moral and intellectual diversity among institutions of higher education and not into insisting on freedom of speech as the safe space for expression of diverse — and often genuinely radical — viewpoints on every particular campus.

Just for the record, here’s some stuff that came up in my classes over the past month and engendered or brought out genuine diverse viewpoints among Berry students:

1. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that there’s very little genuine diversity of thought in our country. Middle-class Americans have fundamentally the same opinions. The middle class aspires to be a universal class, clamping down on dissent in both theory and in practice. Was this ever true? Is this more or less true today? The answer to the latter question, of course, is both.

2. Was Roe v. Wade rightly decided?

3. Is IVF (in vitro fertilization) immoral?

4. Is Nietzsche right that what we call liberalism is a cowardly, whiny, leveling form of herd morality that’s incapable of perpetuating indispensable relational institutions?

5. Is Nietzsche right that our devotion to human rights is an incoherent and ultimately futile way of trying to perpetuate Christian values in the absence of real Christian belief?

6. Should we be stunned by the uncanny relevance of a point of agreement between Marx and Tocqueville? Both see that modern democracy might well culminate in an extreme form of the division between mental and physical labor and produce a coldly complacent ruling class that’s incapable of connecting its economic privileges with civic responsibilities.

7. Has even higher education become a kind of scripting of all the details of life, with the imperative of mechanical measurement to perfect productivity in mind? And so sacrificing all controversy to public relations — or consumer sensitivity?

8. Has transhumanism become the nerd religion or, better, a hugely inauthentic superstition of our cognitive elite that centers itself in Silicon Valley?

9. In what ways are religion strong where democracy is weak? And vice versa? Tocqueville and Marx seem to agree that the resurgent religiosity of the Americans is evidence of how restlessly miserable much of our lives are. Marx thinks we will be religious until the revolution that abolishes the distinction between state and society comes. It probably will never come. Tocqueville thinks religion addresses real human longings that middle-class (capitalist) life can only divert us from, with very uneven success. Does that mean religion has a real future?

10. Should we have a regulated market in kidneys, as the only plausible way of getting people off the hell-in-life that is dialysis?

11. Are the requirements of the present marketplace much more easily met by women than be men? And are men, as a result, gradually becoming superfluous?

12. Do we have no idea what real human perfection is, because we locate progress in history and technology and not in the lives or moral and spiritual destinies of particular persons? Is that why, for example, we now overemphasize collaboration or “teamwork” in higher education? There’s no “I” in teamwork, and that means its function is to divert us from the existential questions with the technological ones.

I hope I have managed not to give my own answers to this questions, just as I hope that the declarative sentences illuminate the questions and do not direct the verdict.

If you can discuss these freely in class, then you have enough safe space to be liberally educated. That doesn’t mean there’s complete openness anywhere. There are always some limits on what can be said, including some reasonable ones.

If you’re offended by the questions, then you really don’t want viewpoint diversity in particular classes.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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