Today’s “Diverse Issues in Higher Education” features an article about Carol Swain’s critique of Islam (“Conservative Professors: Where’s Our Inclusion on Campus”—14 Sept 2017). The explanatory byline reads:
Liberal or far-left professors outnumber their ideologically opposite colleagues nearly 5 to 1. If we promote diversity in race, gender and religion within the student body, shouldn’t diversity of thought be just as important?
The answer to the question is no.
It’s troubling, first of all, that the “conservative” view in the article is a viewpoint on Islam that’s neither straightforwardly conservative nor obviously liberal—yes, Swain is questioning a well-known liberal principle of religious tolerance, but she more forcefully critiques a type of radical conservatism: the prominent patriarchal and theocratic elements within an internationally empowered religion.
The more serious error in Pennaman’s article, though, is its central suggestion that an opinion should be valued simply because it is among the opinions that occur in society. That is a deeply anti-intellectual proposition, which ignores the fundamentals of critical thinking, and even the basic purposes of free inquiry in education.
Diversity of background and perspective is indispensable, both to intellectual and democratic processes. Complex social and historical problems cannot be understood, and representative bodies cannot be formed, when people are ousted based on their backgrounds; we need to hear from every direction in the range of possible human experiences. There can be no humanist discourse, nor genuinely empirical discourse, without that diversity.
Diversity of opinion is not the same. What the author proposes is that opinions should be protected, or propped-up, in the name of proportional representation…that their prevalence in society should be mirrored by a prevalence in university life. That’s not how it works: teachers and scholars are not responsible to cultivate the same views of the world that society already demonstrates. Good teaching at a university is driven by skeptical, dialectal thought. Knowledge is advanced when opinions — all of them — are subject to criticism, and no attitude or feeling is protected from scrutiny. Lots of conservative opinions have trouble meeting the standards of evidence that journals or conferences expect in peer review … as do lots of liberal ones. If your argument doesn’t flourish in that conversation, it’s not a death knell — keep trying. It might be because the investigation really isn’t complete. But academic disciplines cannot sanction an opinion just because it’s conservative, or liberal, or popular, or novel; we sanction an opinion because someone has made good sense of it.
There are good reasons that 5 out of 6 professors lean leftward of society’s norms today. The range of opinions found in society are shaped by many forces other than critical thinking, and more of those unreasoning forces tilt to the right, than to the left. First, at the university, there should be very little room for an opinion that comes from spiritual experience. When confronted with the problem of “faith,” it’s common for religious thinkers to proclaim that their world-views aren’t formed from reasoning alone. So much the better—a privately held spiritual instinct is a private matter. In the classroom, though, when those views are placed on the table, their supernatural premises, usually not confirmed in the experiences of others in the conversation, should gain no traction. Universities have rejected such assertions on both the right and the left with equal force, but “Biblical morality” shapes a far greater portion of U.S. political opinion than the kinds of new-age spirituality that sometimes afflict the left. When we’re equally skeptical of all “spiritual knowledge” (as we should be, in public education) conservatives lose more ground.
Second, there should be very little room for paid advertisements in any educational environment. In life outside school, our opinions on everything from pharmaceutical research to national defense, from nutrition to tax law, from net neutrality to the social role of large media corporations: all are shaped by loud, bright, profit-driven expressions, both in advertising itself, and in the influence of advertisers on mainstream journalism and social networks. Sure, plenty of wealthy corporations espouse socially liberal “agendas”, but conservative politics in the U.S. tilt toward economic policies that benefit the wealthy. Peer-reviewed journals are supposed to be insulated from the general rightward tilt of corporations—on economic issues at least—and so that force, which affects society at large, is mitigated at the university.
Finally, it’s part of the very nature of intellectual inquiry to challenge the traditions and beliefs to which we, as a society, are often unknowingly committed. When our lives and livelihoods are steeped in a long-lived system of unexamined relationships and ideas, we lose some capacity to see the world whole. In our workplaces, our town halls, our homes and families, we invest ourselves deeply in traditions that can be vulnerable to reasoned criticism. Although the university doesn’t necessarily lean left in these difficult questions, the rest of society certainly leans right.
Responsible criticism is not a form of censorship. In good academic conversations, no one is prevented from speaking about their relevant religious experiences, no one is prevented from conveying the influence of advertisers, and unwittingly or not, we often permit and affirm values or ideals that haven’t been clarified or well understood. But a remarkable thing happens when you try to offer unexamined or unreasoned assumptions in the pursuit of intellectual truth. You get criticized. It’s not personal. It’s not oppression. And even if you don’t feel supported or accepted for “who you are” as a conservative, it is a free conversation. This is where we make good on our promise to overturn fallacy, illuminate important problems, and point toward the possibility of a larger, more transcendent view of the world around us.