This is an edited version of a talk sponsored by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy and published Aug. 6 on the Pope Center site. The talk was given on Milton Friedman Day, July 31 in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Too often, American college students face a one-question test, one based not on facts, but on ideology. The test: “Are you a liberal, or conservative?”
The correct answer is, “I’m a liberal, and proud of it.” That concerns me.
However, the nature of my concern may surprise you. I’m not worried much about the students who get it wrong; for the most part, they actually get a pretty good education.
I’m worried about those who get it right. The young people that our educational system is failing are the students on the left. They aren’t being challenged, and don’t learn to think.
Students on the left should sue for breach of contract. We promise to educate them, and then merely pat them on the head for having memorized the “correct” answer!
I was Chair of Political Science at Duke for ten years. At a meeting of department heads, we heard from the chair of one our Departments of Indignation Studies.
We have several departments named “Something-or-Other Studies.” In most cases, they were constituted for the purpose of focusing indignation about the plight of a group that has suffered real and imagined slights and now needs an academic department to be indignant in.
At the meeting, the chair of one of those departments said, “I find that I don’t really need to spend much time with the liberal students, because they already have it right. I spend most of my time arguing with the conservative students. That’s how I spend my time in class.”
This woman was teaching conservative students how to think about arguments and evidence; how to make your arguments in a persuasive way. She was educating them.
Her liberal students? They were given that one-question test. They were just certified as already “knowing what they need to know.”
It may have come as a shock to the parents of these liberal students that they had learned everything they needed to know…in high school! Having memorized a kind of secular leftist catechism, they were free to wander around the quads of Duke and enjoy themselves.
Once we realize that the problem with our educational system is that we’re short-changing students on the left, denying them an education just because they happen to agree with the professor, then we have a path forward.
The way to think of this comes from John Stuart Mill, who argued that we should regard our overall approach to education as collision with error. He wrote:
“[The] peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. “
So, the absence, in many departments, of dissenting voices is harmful. Not so much harmful to those who would agree with the dissenting voice, but those who are denied the chance to collide with error.
It’s as if we asked students to play chess, but only taught them one-move openings. They think that pawn to king four is a better move than pawn to king’s rook four, but that’s simply a matter of faith.
Conservative students, by contrast, actually learn to play chess. They study the whole game, not just the first move. They learn countermoves, they consider the advantages of different approaches. They search out empirical arguments, and they read articles and white papers.
Mill summarizes the difference brilliantly:
“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. …if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”
What happens when a leftist student confronts arguments he or she disagrees with? After all, they sometimes hear views that contradict their own. The problem is that they have always been rewarded for facile rejoinders, the equivalent of one-move chess games.
There is a ceremony that goes with this, something one of my colleagues calls “The Women’s Studies Nod.” When someone makes a ridiculously extreme, empirically unfounded but ideologically correct argument, everyone else must nod vigorously.
Not just a, “Yes, that’s correct,” nod, but a “Yes, you are correct, you are one of us, we are one spirit and one great collective shared mind” nod.
What if someone withholds the Nod?
Since the children of the left have never actually had to play a full chess game of argument, they need a response. Their responses are two: “You are an idiot; no one important believes that,” or “You are evil; no good person could possibly believe that.”
At this point, leftist faculty teach the left students several different moves. Let’s consider a few.
Suppose I claim that rent control is a primary reason why there is such a shortage of affordable housing in New York and San Francisco. Here are the responses I have gotten from students:
2. Check your privilege! (If they had a mic, they’d drop it, because this is supposed to be so devastating).
3. You must take money from the Koch Foundation.
4. Economists don’t understand the real world.
5. Prices don’t measure values. Values are about people. You don’t care about people.
Not one of those responses actually responds to, or even tries to understand, the argument that rent controls harm the populations that politicians claim they want to help.
The point is that if you cared about poor people, actually cared about consequences for poor people, you would oppose rent controls. But that’s not how the logic of the left works. Instead of caring about the poor, they want to be seen as caring about the poor.
Our colleagues on the left could choose to educate their liberal students, but since education requires “collision with error,” that is no longer possible. That’s because the faculty on the left were themselves educated by neglect, never confronting counterarguments, in a now self-perpetuating cycle of ignorance and ideological bigotry.
We honor and remember Milton Friedman here today. What might Professor Friedman have thought of the problem that I raise? He would probably have said that the answer is competition and empowering consumers to make their own best choices.
The problem is that education is a difficult arena for this argument, because students don’t know what they don’t know, and so it’s hard for them to know what they should want to know.
Nonetheless, our best hope lies in competition. A consumer-driven revolution in education will change, and in some ways has already changed, the dominance of the left in the academy.
Education is a consumer-driven business, in spite of what college faculty think. No other industry blames failure on its customers. Not even General Motors claimed that car-buyers were too stupid to appreciate their genius.
That is what many traditional colleges have been doing: Our students fail, we don’t. Students, however, are coming to see through that. Many of them, perhaps especially those on the left, recognize that they are being patronized rather than educated.
They want more. They want to hear the best arguments from the other side. It’s more interesting to play against the first team. A young person’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never shrinks back to its original dimension.
Lots of people on the left actually care about education. We have friends we don’t recognize. The issue is not ideology, but commitment to education.
I shudder when I see people on our side who want to solve the problem of political correctness simply by reversing the polarity. Conservatives who don’t understand liberal arguments are just as brain dead as the worst graduates being produced by our most craven Departments of Indignation Studies.
Education requires collision with error. If our side makes arguments respectfully, intellectually, insisting on balance first in our own classrooms, then we can change education in this country.