President Obama is wrong about almost everything. Let’s get that out of the way now. But he’s right about one thing: the increasingly militant fight for political correctness on college campuses has to end. Now.
“If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want,” the president told the graduating class of Howard University.
Rather, the president argued, to achieve change “requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening, as well.”
“So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them,” he said. “There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that.”
That’s not just how you move forward, it’s how you grow, and it’s how you grow your ideas to be better and stronger.
“Listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them,” Obama argued. “If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”
It’s a welcome rebuke to our generation, who, convinced of their right-ness, have willingly created an echo chamber on college campuses, within which they only hear different iterations of the same voice. We began by shunning ideas that seemed plainly wrong or immoral, but that disdain for discourse then seeped into pushing away things that felt uncomfortable, and then things with which we simply disagreed.
As a result, we risk ideological atrophy, one in which we can’t explain why we’re right other than to simply say that the other side is surely wrong. And we also further the hardening of political and policy affiliations since there is no one around to challenge our beliefs outside of a highly structured academic exchange. It’s a problem that liberals (at least some of the well-meaning ones) are beginning to grasp as a real threat to discourse in higher education. The New York Times’ liberal writer, Nicholas Kristof, writes:
WE progressives believe in diversity, and we want women, blacks, Latinos, gays and Muslims at the table — er, so long as they aren’t conservatives.
Universities are the bedrock of progressive values, but the one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious. We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us. . .
The stakes involve not just fairness to conservatives or evangelical Christians, not just whether progressives will be true to their own values, not just the benefits that come from diversity (and diversity of thought is arguably among the most important kinds), but also the quality of education itself. When perspectives are unrepresented in discussions, when some kinds of thinkers aren’t at the table, classrooms become echo chambers rather than sounding boards — and we all lose.
Kristof goes on to cite some amazing statistics showing the decline in conservative thought on college campuses. For instance, four studies showed that the proportion of professors in humanities who identify as Republican is between 6 and 11 percent, and in the social sciences between 7 and 9 percent. In contrast, 18 percent of social scientists identify as Marxists. In other words, there is double the percentage of Marxists as there are Republicans in some fields of study.
Sadly, the winnowing of conservative professors is not by chance or happenstance, in many cases it’s by active discrimination. Kristof cites several peer reviewed studies that found that social psychologists, anthropologists, English professors, and other academics said they would be less likely to support a job candidate if they knew they were conservative.
Which brings us back to President Obama. His commencement speech at Howard was far from the first time he’s encouraged a robust debate on college campuses. He urged the Missouri University protesters to “be able to listen” because if they are threatened by the idea and presence of dissenting ideas then that’s a “recipe for dogmatism.” And before that he warned young adults that, “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”
But students can’t listen, or be threatened, or even be coddled if colleges are doing their best to keep conservatives out of the classroom. Something has to change.