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Heterodoxy on campus— the role of universities

What is the purpose of the university? Until recently, this question was uncontroversial. Young men and women went to college for a practical reason: to become educated to engage in a profession or a kind of work that requires a higher, specialized education. And we expected that university students would also seek a broader education, that they would read widely and begin to acquire the knowledge that equips them to think through and converse about complex questions and the challenges of being human and living in a community as free citizens.   

Does the American university continue to serve both the practical professional purpose and the broader educational commitment we expect? Is it fair to ask if the university still allows sufficient space to debate the important questions on campus today, as Socrates did with the young people who followed him around in the Athenian marketplace? We might put it this way: is the goal of the university to pursue knowledge and reason about what justice is – or to get students to campus to tell them what justice is? Is it still possible to have an honest conversation on campus about the moral and political questions most fundamental to the education of young minds?  

Carol McNamara

In the country at large, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, Americans with or without a college education continue to acknowledge the value of higher education for developing the minds and skills of college graduates to enhance their future success in the workplace. But polling also suggests a growing, and for those of us who teach at universities, alarming apprehension among many Americans that a university education does more harm than good.  

The dissatisfaction focuses largely on concerns that the scope of acceptable ideas is narrowing on campus, that rather than encouraging students to examine texts, ideas and theories that push them to challenge the conventional wisdom, they are encouraged or even recruited to become purveyors of a new social orthodoxy. The Pew poll suggests that a large percentage of the public fears there is “too much concern about protecting students from views they might find offensive” or that professors “are bringing their political and social views into the classroom.” 

It is encouraging to observe that there are new voices around the table renewing the argument for the university as a cause for good and making their case for the deeper, fuller education of the young citizen. In a recent book, “Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation,” Roosevelt Montas eloquently presents an argument for a liberal education that liberates the mind to consider the question of how to lead a good life for a human being as an individual and as a member of a free, open, and just society.  

In fact, Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, contends that 21st century higher education has an obligation to re-establish itself as a place where students learn what they need to know to enhance and strengthen American democracy, as informed, constructive critics when necessary, but also as productive contributors to the work of pursuing knowledge and rebuilding our ability to converse about difficult challenges in an open, rigorous manner, and which is conducive to a healthy polity. 

There are also institutions rising to address the necessity of ensuring the robust exchange of ideas on campus and in American society at large. Chief among them is Heterodox Academy, whose tagline is “Great minds don’t always think alike, so we need to think together.” Heterodox Academy was created by Jonathan Haidt and his partners to address the troubling results for productive research and learning of imposing uniformity of opinion on institutions of higher education, which are intended to be the locus of curiosity, intellectual humility and the quest for knowledge. The institution and its new president, John Tomasi, lead the way in pressing for an important conversation about the necessity of “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.”  

Tomasi discussed this topic at ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership on April 13. He addressed the consequences of expecting universities to focus on pursuing social justice as opposed to enriching student education and pursuing knowledge. The event is part of the school’s Civic Discourse Project, a series of lectures designed to provide a forum for discussing how to address the challenge of rebuilding American institutions and the unity of our civil society, based on civil disagreement. 

Carol McNamara is the associate director for public programs for the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University.  

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One comment

  1. I can’t adequately express how refreshing it is to hear a member of academia talking about the importance of the free exchange of ideas to the maintenance and advancement of civil society! Happiness and prosperity are not born in an echo chamber.

    Thank you, Ms. McNamara!

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