The Corner

Education

College Campuses Need More Debate

One of the more irritating leftist phrases we hear is that colleges and all other institutions should “model diversity.” That is, they should all have every shade of the rainbow in colors or people to show that we’re all one big happy family. (Bill Clinton’s “I want a cabinet that looks like America” was an early instance of this.)

Instead of “modeling diversity” I suggest that colleges model rationality. They should make sure to display different viewpoints and — more importantly — how to employ reason when points of view clash. Our campuses used to do that rather effectively, but not so much these days. (But one school where debate still thrives is Hillsdale, which recently hosted a debate over free trade between Don Boudreaux and Ian Fletcher.)

In today’s Martin Center article, Professor George La Noue makes the case for reviving debate. He and a team of grad students recently published a paper on the decline of debate. He writes,

Our findings were discouraging. Except for wealthy institutions possessing high-status research centers or law schools, sponsoring debates or forums about public policy with different perspectives is not a priority in higher education. Many political issues debated everywhere else in American society are not debated at all, or only rarely, in campus public events. Almost all undergraduates can vote, but few are exposed to diverse viewpoints about the major policies which should inform their franchise.

The problem is that administrators mostly prefer to avoid possible altercations likely to result when Social Justice Warrior types try to shout down speakers they don’t like (even if there is another speaker they do) and the faculty has done little to stand up for the civil exchange of ideas. That being the case, La Noue argues that trustees and state officials need to prod schools to do more.

He concludes,

A public inventory of campus debates and forums, as our research has done, should be the first step in holding higher education accountable for exposing students and future citizens to diverse ideas. That should eventually improve the kind of civil and tolerant political culture so important in a democracy.

It would be great to see our campuses buzzing with debates over all sorts of contentious topics: the minimum wage, the drug war, socialism, Obamacare, gun control, taxation, etc. Students would learn that people who disagree with them are not monsters and that arguments must be met with counter-arguments, not blind rage. Thanks, Professor La Noue, for calling attention to this serious problem.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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