Thursday, June 05, 2014

Liberal education not the same as education in liberalism

 “Isn’t the purpose of a university to stir discussion, not silence it?”
Isn't it pointless anymore to ask such questions?  The purpose of a university to stir discussion?  Huh?  Which planet is that person from!

A different planet, of sorts, yes.

The person who asked that question is a billionaire.  A billionaire worth many times over, at 33 billion dollars. A rich planet where, to quote from The Great Gatsby, "the rich are different from you and me."

Have you figured out which planet that is, and who that person is?

A short man. An old man. A former mayor.

You got it?  Bingo!

Yes,  it was the New Yorker Micheal Bloomberg who raised that question, during his commencement address at Harvard.  It does seem like he said quite some interesting stuff, especially given that it was a commencement address:
the whole purpose of granting tenure to professors is to ensure that they feel free to conduct research on ideas that run afoul of university politics and societal norms. When tenure was created, it mostly protected liberals whose ideas ran up against conservative norms.
Today, if tenure is going to continue to exist, it must also protect conservatives whose ideas run up against liberal norms. Otherwise, university research will lose credibility. A liberal arts education must not be an education in the art of liberalism.
A wonderful line that is worth repeating:
A liberal arts education must not be an education in the art of liberalism.
It is unfortunate that liberal education has been thus hijacked.  Does it matter that the hijacking has also resulted in silencing of dissenting voices?  And, worse, a near total exclusion of conservative thinking?

"Does it matter if conservatives are scarce in the liberal arts faculty?" asks Steven Hayward.  Who is Hayward and why should we listen to him?  He "was the inaugural visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder."  Yes, a position like this was created for a reason--conservative thinkers are a rare and endangered species, especially at the uber-left campuses. So, why was such a position created?
The Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy is a three-year pilot program supported by private funds. More than 20 donors have raised $1 million to support the program.
“This is a novel idea to further enrich discourse on our campus,” said CU-Boulder Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano. The Visiting Scholar, DiStefano said, “will contribute to the diversity of thought on campus by encouraging debate and discussion, by sharing their scholarship and career experience, and by hosting public events in the campus community and perhaps around the state.”
One has to wonder at the state of higher education if a conservative thinker was not to be found in-house at a large university like UC-Boulder, right?

Anyway, how does Hayward answer his own question,"Does it matter if conservatives are scarce in the liberal arts faculty?"
Well, if we believe that monopoly power is bad in the economic marketplace for goods, why wouldn’t it also be bad for the academic marketplace of ideas? Of course, as serious students of antitrust will tell you, not all monopolies or oligopolies in markets are the result of nefarious behavior; there are lots of reasons they come about, and remedies for market concentration are not always simple or easy. But regardless of the cause, monopolies usually lead to stagnation. The left’s academic monopoly is the chief cause of the stagnation of the humanities and social sciences today.
I am neither a conservative nor one of the loony-left. What I attempt to do in my teaching is pretty much along the lines of what Bloomberg thinks we ought to be doing:
I believe that a university’s obligation is not to teach students what to think, but to teach students how to think. And that requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudging them, and determining whether the other side might actually make some fair points.
But, really, it takes a billionaire to remind us about this?  A grad school professor, Martin Krieger, always reminded us, it is not what is said but who says that.  If only I were a billionaire? ;)


Ramesh said...

That's a wonderful quote from Bloomberg.

I am not even sure that it is education of the art of liberalism. If academicians were truly liberal, they would encourage discussion . They would welcome with open arms a contradictory point of view to debate and score over it, if they could. The loony left aren't liberals by a long way. They are as pig headed and dogmatic as many mad hatters on the right.

I haven't really thought about it, but why have faculty, strayed so much to the left ? And why are many so intolerant of debate and discussion - do we need more argumentative Indians there ?? Yours truly is eminently qualified on that front :)

Sriram Khé said...

If you think about the economics department at the U. of Chicago, you then don't get the image of faculty having gone left, right? (how about that awesome usage of "left, right?"!!! hehe)

The right's equivalent of the loony-left have found comfortable soapboxes at various think-tanks. They do more harm influencing public policy (think Neocons and the wars!) than the loony-left do via ranting on campuses ;)

But, yes, the humanities and in the social sciences, where the right/left interpretations matter, academia has a dominant left tilt. By an iterative process of self-selection over successive hiring, departments have made sure they hire only the "correct" ones. After a while, this means that we don't even get PhDs in the pipeline who provide a conservative interpretation--after all, there are no faculty to guide their research work. So, then a self-fulling prophecy--we hire the left because there is no right to be found. QED!

Any university here will hire you if you are willing to publicly swear on the Gita that Paul Krugman and Arundhati Roy are awesome intellectuals )