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January 9, 2013

Incivility, Persuasion, and Higher Education

Today's Wall Street Journal has an excellent article by Father John I. Jenkins,  president of the University of Notre Dame, entitled "Persuasion as the Cure for Incivility." In it, he argues that Americans need to get out of the terrible habit of "arguing" with people who disagree with them by demonizing and vilifying them. 

He's absolutely right. Most of what now passes for debate in America consists of slandering and impugning the motives of those who disagree with you. The various sorts of ad hominem attacks are far more common than reasoned discourse and the country much the worse for it.

Sadly, Father Jenkins never mentions the role that higher education has played in this. Students in our colleges and universities often see their professors treat intellectual disagreements as grounds for spiteful or sarcastic denunciations of their opponents. A student who has the temerity to question a professor on any number of topics - climate change, macroeconomic policy, welfare programs, affirmative action, and so on - is apt to receive a stinging rebuke rather than a thoughtful response. Very rarely is a professor who treats students that way chastised by his or her superiors.

The days when scholars welcomed and even demanded serious argumentation are largely gone, but you get a sense of what things used to be like by reading what Alan Charles Kors experienced as a student. (I link to his essay "On the Sadness of Higher Education" in this piece.)

In his recent book Unlearning Liberty, Greg Lukianoff of FIRE writes about the awful tendency among faculty and administrators to use college as a means of instilling the "right" ideas in the minds of students rather than teaching them to evaluate arguments and debate them. It is little wonder that when they get out into the world and confront hot political controversies, they mostly adopt the ugly tactics they've seen in college.

If higher education leaders want to improve this lamentable situation, they could start by requiring students to take a course on logic and argumentation. Most students have never been exposed to any such material. They have no idea how to construct arguments. They can't tell the difference between valid arguments and fallacious ones. They don't know that emotion is not a substitute for reason.

A good course could remedy that. How about replacing one of the mandatory "diversity" courses so common at many schools with one that would help restore persuasiveness and civility in public discourse?

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