There were recently several articles in papers that I thought dealt with the same basic subject – “How did we get so polarized?” Of the three that I would like to comment on in the next three parts to this blog, two were in the The Wall Street Journal (which recently had several articles that I thought dealt with the same basic subject). The third was in our local paper – The Tulsa World – but was written by a man from Hillsboro, Ohio. The first WSJ article was an op-ed article written by a John M. Ellis who it says is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The headline of his piece was “Higher Education’s Deeper Sickness”. He started with the observation that even “moderate-to conservative speakers coming to college campuses can trigger “near riots”. This is the symptom, but “what then is the disease? the problem he thinks is that “in most humanities and social science departments – especially those central to a liberal education, such as history, english and political science ” students hear only one opinion. And the more people hear only one opinion, the more “incoherent and irrational” they will become. He says “more than half of the spectrum of political and social ideas has been banished from the classroom, and what remains has degenerated as a result.” So “no matter how many statements supporting free speech are released” it doesn’t matter. He believes that higher education must involve learning to evaluate competing ideas, to analyze the pros and cons of rival arguments and concepts. So treating only the symptoms of student unrest is pointless, so how do we treat the disease? If this is the problem, the obvious answer is to get more diversity of opinion on campus. But how do we do that?
I agree with his conclusion that higher education needs to include different ideas. It needs to teach people to think, and that is dependent on analyzing different viewpoints of rational alternatives. And accepting and analyzing different view points is not happening like it should on college campuses today. Free speech should be not just a publication statement – it should be what all on campus believe and practice. But I don’t agree with how he thinks we got to this point. He seems to think that it has happened by design and by a plot of the “radical left”. I don’t think it was a plot, but by a couple of natural and unintended causes. First is the fact that we are more comfortable with people we agree with and are like us. So if more department heads have progressed to be liberal thinkers, they are more likely to hire people who think like they do.
The other problem is that Universities have become very competitive in the last few years and the rating groups and ratings more important. When I was in school, there were several professors who did not have phd degrees and had worked outside of college or even if they did have phd’s, they had worked in the private sector for a while. These were generally my best professors. The rating agencies today apparently count only doctorate degrees in making their ratings. But one doesn’t stop learning when one gets out of the classroom. The “real world” may have some of the best lessons. But I think because of the competition for students and the rating agencies only counting classroom work, that colleges today are much more prone to hire only people with Dr’s degrees and it doesn’t matter if they haven’t done anything out of the classroom. In the “real world” outside the classroom you are guaranteed to have differences of opinion and learn that there are no guarantees and – regardless of logic – there are no one guaranteed way to do things. And sometimes things that you don’t think will work – work well. So having people who don’t have anything but classroom experience and who are “like us” probably results in a single mind- set faculty. And today’s is probably left – of – center with all the problems that he cites. Our college education system would probably be better off with a lot more divergence of opinion and experience that we have today. It was not a plot that got us here, but how we get out is an interesting problem. Since we are more comfortable “with people like us” it’s probably not going to happen without outside intervention of some kind. But some of the other Wall Street Journal articles would help us in that direction if they had more “popular news” support.