Why Campus Intellectual Diversity Matters:

The other day, I posted on a new study regarding the ideological imbalance on college faculties. There is a huge amount in the blogosphere, including of course, a few things right here by Juan. It appears that this time around, at least, no one is actually denying that the imbalance exists. I'll just comment on one key question that has been raised, which is, if there is such an imbalance, does it matter (as implicitly raised here)?

Intellectual diversity matters because it goes to the core of a liberal education. My remarks here will focus on colleges, because the underlying study doesn't address law schools. Also, this is a long post already, so I venture no speculation on the causes of the imbalance or opinions on rectifying it (the trackbacks to my first post have some interesting views on those matters especially this one), just my views on why I think it is an educational problem.

The way I see it, college education exists for three purposes: (1) to develop human capital, (2) to educate and develop critical thinking skills and intellectual self-discovery and character in students, and (3) to develop individuals who can participate as responsible citizens in a free and democratic society.

(1) Developing human capital: Ideological diversity has little to do with this really because it is just developing skills, such as in engineering, science, computer science, and business administration. Clearly this is an important part of education, but not the only thing, because otherwise we wouldn't offer English, Philosophy, etc., in universities. So I will set this aside.

(2) Educating critical thinking skills and intellectual self-discovery: Ideological diversity has a lot to do with this. The purpose of education should be to teach students how to think, not what to think. I don't know how you can teach students to analyze arguments and determine the truth value about claims about the world if you don't expose them to a variety of ideas. As Greg Ransom observes the presence of an intellectual orthodoxy on campus can severely hamper student's critical reasoning skills. Ransom's experience is that many students do in fact absorb some degree of indoctrination at a very superficial level, and that the virtual absence of any serious counterarguments leaves them at this very superficial and unreflective mode of analysis. I think this is probably right--for instance, I am amazed at the shallowness of analysis that I hear from ostensibly educated students. Comments I hear about environmental issues, in particular, come to mind.

UPDATE: I added as an update after my initial post "intellectual self-discovery" for students in response to a perceptive reader comment. I did mean to include this as well as part of this point--in addition to developing individual critical reasoning skills, it is also important to develop individual student intellectual skills to understand themselves and the world better as well as guiding ethical and character attributes. Obviously this requires students to wrestle with various ideas in coming to their own world views.

(3) Educating citizens for a free and democratic society: One of our major goals as educators is to educate individuals who can participate as citizens in the governance of a free and democratic society. If not, then I can't understand why the taxpayers of many states subsidize colleges. If so, it seems to me that it is imperative that students be exposed to all viewpoints about the world and to learn to evaluate the truth and resonance of competing world views. Living together as citizens in a free society, and having the kinds of connections and conversations that make that possible, requires developing a depth of understanding that cannot be created in an atmosphere of one-sided intellectual orthodoxy. It is a pretty short road from the impoverished discussions in modern universities to the idiocy of Michael Moore and red v. blue America. I don't pretend that American political discussion was ever that exhaulted, but surely we used to hold educated people to a higher standard of discourse then we see today, especially on university campuses? I personally would add to this that as part of educating free and responsible citizens we should make sure students understand the intellectual and historical foundations of the western world, but I recognize that this is a more controversial proposition.

So if the purpose of education is to educate students to think for themselves and to develop critical thinking skills about the world, as to become good citizens, leaders, and self-reliant individuals, does this require a diversity of opinion on the faculty? Or is it sufficient to leave up to individual professors on the honor system to try to present all sides of an issue in class and to make sure that students engage the various arguments on all sides of an issue?

While there are many good professors who create an open and balanced forum for a true exchange of ideas, there are many situations where this plaintly is not the case. Most obviously, the entire point of many courses today is to present a particular viewpoint, not to create a balanced discussion, such as Women's Studies, African-American Studies, and GLBT Studies (for instance, when Dartmouth added a GLBT Studies program a few years ago, its first course was taught by a local activist, rather than a properly-qualified professor).

Second, many professors do abuse the power of the podium in order to proselytize for their particular ideological views and to attack competing ideas. When I was in college, for instance, my required introductory class for my major on international politics consisted of a sustained rant by the professor against Ronald Reagan and the Strategic Defense Initiative and why we needed to maintain the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (this was in 1984). My "History of the American South" class was a one semester narrative by a Marxist professor on how rich southern whites had conspired to manipulate racist sentiments among lower-class whites to keep them from banding together in the "natural" economic alliance of poor whites and blacks to plunder the property of rich whites. He was the only one who taught it, so if I wanted to take it (I was from South Carolina, so I was interested in it), I had to take it from him. I could go on, but I'm sure everyone has their own similar horror stories. The clear purpose of those teaching these classes it to proselytize and try to tell students what to think. Add political correctness into the mix and this is a pretty potent stew.

Leaving aside these obviously biased courses and professors, even the best professors are going to have a tendency to teach to their strengths and what they know best and are most interested in. And, I believe, this is perfectly natural, and probably is the way it should be because that is what makes for the best educational experience. But this is why you need to have professors with a variety of interests and strengths. Even something as simple as putting together a syllabus reflects a professor's views about what is important or interesting. I don't think that my experience as a Government major was unique--I read Marx in almost every class (often even in classes where he didn't even seem relevant). But for the fact that at the time Dartmouth had a Burkean and a Straussian on the faculty--both now retired--I don't know that I would have ever read Burke, Locke, or The Federalist. Fortunately I stumbled across the Institute for Humane Studies while I was in college, and so was exposed to classical liberal and conservative thinkers. But this requires taking the effort to look beyond the campus.

Intellectual diversity, therefore, is crucial in that exposes students to a variety of ideas and perspectives, and through that developes critical thinking skills and an understanding of different ways of seeing the world which is necessary for living in a free and democratic society. I think the failure to have a serious representation of libertarian and conservative professors on campus, and the resultant tendency of the left to trivialize that world view (which is, after all, held by roughly 50% of students!), breeds a cynicism in students about the whole intellectual enterprise in which we are engaged. If the university itself doesn't take ideas seriously and doesn't care about free, open, and informed discussion of ideas, why would we possibly think that students would be any more interested in it? And if we aren't going to teach them critical reasoning skills and to search for truth, they may as well major in Computer Science or Business Administration.

When universities fail to do their job, it seems to me that we get one of two results. First, we can get the shallow indoctrination phenomenon described by Ramson--opinions without serious intellectual support. Or second, we can the "tuning out" effect that I described in my earlier post (also noted here), where students simply ignore what happens in class and just regurgitate the mantra that they are fed. Either way, we have failed at the task of education.


To clarify, when I say "they may as well major in Computer Science or Business Administration" I do not intend to denigrate those majors in the slightest--I am just saying that if we don't accomplish the other two goals of a liberal education, then we should just treat colleges and universities as trade schools that just develop human capital, rather than developing good citizens, critical thinking skills, and intellectual self-discovery.