Dialogue, Reason, Rhetoric, Universities

Universities, Politics, and Dialogue

Thursday, 9th November 2017

From Nov. 9, 2017


Problems with Haidt, and against affirmative action for conservatives in higher education. The categories of “left” and “right” are often not all that helpful, and especially in university settings. There is a political reason for some conservative pundits to excoriate the left in universities, and depict them as hotbeds of communist radicalism, but this rarely lines up with the reality of the university.

I’ve sometimes argued in the past that what gets understood by the world in general as left-wing thinking in universities is actually just nuance. This article essentially makes that point as well, when it discusses the study of criminal justice. It’s easy to have a “tough on crime” reductionist attitude, but when you start looking at lowering things like recidivism, overall crime rates, etc., the attitude of revenge/retribution by itself starts looking less effective than other approaches that include mental health care, support for people after they’ve left prison, more humane prison standards, etc.

Reductionism or lack of nuance is not solely a property of the right, of course, and this article mentions that too. I’m often amazed at the ways that changes in economies are imagined that seem completely unworkable or unthought out. And, as I said earlier, the “right” is not a very helpful term, partly because it gathers many things under its umbrella that fit uneasily together, at best. In other words, some who identify as right-wing aren’t afraid of nuance.

But there is, often, a moral framework that precedes rather than follows investigation. Is this true on the left too? Maybe. Certainly those on the right would say there is. But we’re talking about the university here, not general public discourse, where tribal stories are often constructed and spread around to reinforce group identity and cohesion.

In universities, one would hope that one’s assumptions could be tested and questioned. And the fact is, that is usually what happens. Does that mean that people radically change their views on things overnight? Of course not. That doesn’t happen in science either. When you have a body of evidence and argument for something, it takes a lot to change that. But the point is, you subject yourself to that process of evidence and argumentation.

And, the more you’re willing to subject yourself to that process, the more nuanced your ideas are likely to become. And, as I said earlier, the more nuanced your ideas are, the less likely they are to look like any version of ideas that starts from the conclusion, that is, that starts from the belief in a particular kind of worldview and then goes looking for proof for it. So, those who argue for intelligent design, for instance, rarely are able to look past the desired outcome. This extends to framing those who don’t agree in terms of that kind of logic – everyone is working toward their own desired outcome, theirs is just the right one because it came from God. What isn’t understood here is that those who start from actual evidence and argumentation aren’t starting from that logic at all. It is rhetorically possible but philosophically unproductive, and training in science means being rigorous.

I know the response to this on the part of those on the right. How insulting, how elitist, you’re not taking my opinions seriously. And yet, the university takes these things totally seriously. If there’s evidence, if there’s an argument to be made, it’s probably showing up in peoples’ classes. Not every class – a biology class is not going to spend much time on creationist arguments. Why not? Because more often than not, these are presented as opinions, not as positions based on evidence.

We go back to a very old struggle, dating back through the modern period, through the European Middle Ages, back to ancient Greece – the struggle between faith and reason, with a generous side helping of the problem of freedom and determinism. It never entirely goes away, for people on either side of the divide. One can say that nothing but reason matters – and yet we have loads of cognitive evidence that our decisions precede our reasoning abilities, that our groups affect our positions on things, that we cluster together in tribes and adopt the positions of those closest to us rather than those further away. Is that faith? Of course not, but it is the non-rational.

Are we only that, though? Again, of course not. We have the ability to be reflexive, to take a longer view of things. We can put a set of influences in our own paths that enable some outcomes and discourage others (I’m looking at you, bag of Halloween candy…).

To the extent that conservative academics come with what universities do well, which is find evidence for things and make arguments, there is plenty of room in the university, and there are, indeed, those conservatives around. To the extent that we think about “conservative” in the wider public sense, as someone who comes with a set of beliefs about the necessary order of society, the nature of goodness, character, etc., who rely on the representation of a particular opinion as the litmus test for whether conservatives are welcome, to that extent I’m not interested. I’m not interested because that’s not just difference, that’s a rejection of some of the foundational principles of the university, that evidence matters.

Lots more to be said on this, of course. All sides in this kind of debate will see themselves as the open-minded, reasonable ones and see the other side as the closed-minded dogmatic ones. There have been times when the gulf between those sides was less than it is now, and when people of truly different positions could productively talk to each other. I often wish for those days again (and, I’ve been in places where that happened). Those days may come back. But right now, the tribalism runs deep, and is a zero-sum game. In any skirmish, my loss means your win and my win means your loss. It doesn’t need to be like that, all the time.

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