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Tyranny of the Enlightened
Teaching students to listen to one another in a time of divisiveness

By David L. Kirp


 
The public policy courses that I teach at Berkeley traffic in the controversial, with gay rights, abortion, racism and religious liberty among the topics canvassed. These are the kinds of issues that stir the passions and make for tricky pedagogical terrain.

During the course of a typical semester, there comes what I think of as The Moment. An intrepid student gives voice to an unpopular point of view—arguing, say, that abortion is immoral—and a murmurous hiss, punctuated by snickers and head-shaking, blankets the class. At those moments—what I think of as the tyranny of the enlightened—I envy my colleagues who teach microeconomics or mechanical engineering, subjects that are less likely to become incitements.

What brought The Moment to mind was a survey of students’ views on free speech and discussion that was recently conducted by the University of Georgia system. The impetus for the survey came from Republican lawmakers who, egged on by their constituents, suspected that liberal professors were offering slanted positions and muzzling dissent. The university needed to be regulated, these legislators believed, to promote more intellectual (read: ideological or political) diversity. University officials resisted, of course, arguing that imposing a political litmus test jeopardized academic freedom. But rather than carrying on a predictable war of rhetoric, the university and the lawmakers agreed that a survey of students’ attitudes would infuse the debate with data.

The survey confirms that Georgia’s campuses are rife with intolerance of unpopular views—but fellow students, not professors, turn out to be the biggest problem.

Only 13 percent of the students faulted their instructors for presenting their political opinions as gospel, and most of those students felt free to disagree. By contrast, a majority believed that their classmates weren’t open to hearing viewpoints that differed from their own. At Berkeley, political correctness is the province of the left; in Georgia, where an equal number of students identified themselves as liberals and conservatives, such intolerance prevailed across the spectrum. Conservatives and liberals were equally likely to view their classmates as closed-minded.

Dissenting students paid a price for being out of lock-step. “Being a conservative while being in college has given me the chance to be told that I’m wrong by many students,” wrote one student. “One topic that I feel very passionately about is the right to bear arms, and never have I expressed my opinions on this issue without another student attacking my opinion as though the mere thought of someone with an opposing view was someone worth crushing to wipe away that thought.”

Vituperation from the right was equally common. “It seems that so many students in my classes are extremely right-wing for either religious reasons, or because they’re against taxes, or because they are following in their parents’ footsteps,” wrote a self-described liberal. “I feel like being liberal in any way is frowned upon, especially if these liberal opinions on certain topics are not consistent with Christian views (i.e. pro-choice). I’ve seen students get attacked just because someone thought the person might be a liberal.”

Faced with such hostility, all but the bravest quickly learn to keep their contrarian opinions to themselves. Most professors feel helpless when faced with such situations. Rather than wading into the fray, teaching students how to listen to one another, they leave it to the students to sort things out for themselves. That’s an abdication of their responsibility to teach students how to engage in conversations that are both tough-minded and civil, to give them the tools they need to harness their passion in the service of analysis, to show them how they can argue with one another without shutting their minds or reaching for the cudgel.

Back to The Moment. In an undergraduate class on AIDS and public policy that I taught some years ago the topic for one session was unsafe sex. A student advanced the “marriage as civilizing force” argument: Because gay men were prevented from marrying, she said, they were more likely to engage in unsafe sex. Another student, who happened to be an African American woman, disagreed. “Gays are naturally promiscuous,” she said. “Even if they were allowed to marry they’d still be behaving that way.”

There came that murmurous hiss. A dozen hands shot into the air, as students readied themselves to pounce on their classmate. Rather than inviting the bloodbath I decided to take the riskiest step of my teaching career. “Suppose someone told you that it wouldn’t make any difference if blacks and whites had equal resources because blacks are naturally less intelligent than whites,” I said. “How would you respond?”

I held my breath, imagining the career-ending headline: “Professor says blacks are less intelligent.” But I knew these students. I believed that they would trust the give-and-take of the class, and I was right. “That’s a stereotype,” the student responded—and then the lightbulb went off as she saw what was wrong with her earlier argument.

There are far safer, and probably smarter, ways of getting students to see both sides of passion-provoking issues. “To play devil’s advocate” can be a useful device because it enables students to voice unpopular ideas without having to claim them as their own. Role-playing is another valuable strategy. My class sessions on the abortion cases used to be a disaster: Prochoice students completely dominated the discussion, and those who disagreed were cowed into silence, afraid to risk ostracism. The dynamic changed when I divided the class into pro and con groups—indeed, while most of the students disagree strongly with the “pro-life” position, when they’re assigned to that role they have often make the strongest arguments.

Any time I hear one of those murmurous hisses I call a halt to the proceedings and talk about why civility and respect matter so much. “The stakes are high,” I say. “If the ideological divisions in the country run the gamut from A to Z, the range in this class is A to B. If we can’t listen to one another, then we should give up on the possibility of using reason as a tool of persuasion.” Somehow the message sticks—at least until the end of the term.

When Susan Herbst, the chief academic officer of the University of Georgia system, saw the results of the student survey, she was naturally pleased that the “biased professor” argument didn’t hold water. (Conservative legislators came to the same conclusion, a tribute to the power of reason.) Herbst was troubled by the students’ closed-mindedness—they needed to “realize that universities are a place to go to feel uncomfortable intellectually,” she told Inside Higher Education in August 2008.

That is not only a desirable state of affairs— it’s essential if universities are to incite thinking. But it is not the natural state of affairs in a society where “fair and balanced” has become code for slanted, where niche markets pitch their wares to the ideologically like-minded, and where the choice of where one lives is informed by the likemindedness of one’s neighbors. In this climate the university needs to be a counter-balancing force. Academe is often described as an intellectual commons, but the commons has to be constantly tended. It’s the job of professors to teach students that open-mindedness isn’t an irrelevancy or an annoyance but something of value.


David L. Kirp, professor of public policy and law at UC Berkeley, is a frequent contributor to National Crosstalk. His recent books include Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, and The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics.

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