One of Davidson’s great gifts to me is the opportunity to talk with people across many sectors who come from diverse backgrounds and hold a wide range of views. This summer, I met with parents, alumni, philanthropists, activists, university and college presidents, journalists, conservative policy analysts, liberal policy analysts, public school teachers, and elected officials. These people do not agree on much but, disturbingly, many of them share the perception that college and university campuses have become narrow, closed environments where lockstep conformity imperils a genuine commitment to free, open inquiry. This general distrust of elite colleges and universities (and of senior administrators and professors) spans the political spectrum. Across the board, our institutions are losing credibility as a source for knowledge and a place that genuinely values an unfettered quest for truth.
Rather than debating who’s to blame, higher education leaders at Davidson and elsewhere can focus on earning back the public trust on which our educational mission depends.
First, we need to share widely what actually happens every day in our classrooms as faculty and students grapple together with hard questions: What does it mean to lead an ethical life in a pluralistic society, where people disagree on what is good and right? How can we make health care better and affordable? How does the past continue to shape the present? What does a right to privacy mean in the age of big data? For every ugly episode of speakers being shouted down, there are countless examples of students and faculty freely pursuing these and other urgent areas of inquiry. They go where their questions lead and they passionately debate the implications of their findings.
I say this to contextualize, not as an excuse. Some criticism of higher ed is clearly justified. Campuses do risk inadvertently narrowing the intellectual field in which we work if we do not intentionally engage a very wide range of ideas, writers and speakers.
As a student, I learned so much from brilliant professors like Allan Bloom (who questioned the moral legitimacy of ideas that really mattered to me) and speakers like bioethicist Leon Kass (who helped me learn how to argue because I disagreed with him so often). Indeed, Bloom posed the question that profoundly shaped my own intellectual trajectory. “How,” he asked, “did a word that once meant a man’s manliness (virtue) come to mean a woman’s chastity?”
At Davidson, we can enable our students to study and live in a wide intellectual field, where a broad range of ideas get expressed and tested through respectful, vigorous debate. An epithet is not an argument and a slogan is not an idea. Students here learn the difference between aggressively questioning an idea and gratuitously attacking a person.
We see it in the classroom, and a group of professors recently led a forum on how to tackle divisive issues in class. We see it on campus with speakers from Linda Sarsour to Bay Buchanan. After conservative National Review editor Jonah Goldberg’s recent appearance, he wrote:
While some of the questions from the kids were decidedly hostile, they were nonetheless all fair game and civilly asked. I’m still working through how to talk about my upcoming book, and it was very helpful for me to hear from people who didn’t necessarily like what I had to say.
When we publicly engage vigorously with people, both on and off campus, with whom we foundationally disagree, we show our students that conflict, even when difficult, can be productive and enlightening. Conflict helped me find my voice and it will help our students find theirs.