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Religion & Liberty: Volume 29, Number 2

No room for debate: academia’s one-sided conversation

Oberlin University is paying the price of political correctness. The university complied with a court order to post a $36 million bond after an Ohio court ruled against the university in a defamation lawsuit brought by Gibson’s Bakery. The case arose from an incident in 2016 when the owner, who is a frequent target of student shoplifters, tackled an African-American male, who was subsequently arrested. The community accused the owner, who is white, of racial profiling, and the university sided with the protesters. This aspect – that university administrators would actively seek to perpetuate and support an unfounded claim – is what led to the defamation ruling initially amounting to $44 million.

During a visit to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, Oberlin University President Carmen Twillie Ambar said, “You can have two different lived experiences, and both those things can be true.” This sentiment has pervaded academia, where such things as personal narrative and the theory of intersectionality have become the impetus for modern activism. Lived experience has ousted reason. Empiricism has given way to the concept that one’s experience and identity solely inform truth. If truth, then, is based on your exclusive perspective, what sense does it make to engage with a narrative that differs from your own?

This academic culture change has intensified its quest for a solitary vision of justice, with student activists acting as its vanguard. This shift has had a profoundly negative impact on public discourse, yet also assures us that the answer to a change in education lies in education itself.

If truth, then, is based on your exclusive perspective, what sense does it make to engage with a narrative that differs from your own?

Thomas Sowell wrote in The Quest for Cosmic Justice that one could tell a worthy vision from an unworthy one by determining “whether visions provide a basis for theories to be tested or for dogmas to be proclaimed and imposed.” The latter has prevailed in academia. The current dogma requires examining which group one belongs to in order to determine whether one is the established holder of power or the subject of oppression. Any societal move towards equity must naturally oppose these embedded groups of power.

This vision operates within categories and generalizations; examining individual facts is overshadowed by the more important task of expanding and existing within a unitary vision of how the world works, while discounting and silencing those who oppose this critical vision. Paradoxically, the generalizations necessary for this vision discount the nuanced nature of human life and make assumptions about other people’s “lived experience” as a consequence. Thus, higher education – once an institution that had embedded within it the principles of academic conversation and, by extension, the liberal pillars of a free society – has now become the primary engine for social engineering.

This development is not without its pitfalls, nor exceptions, such as the University of Chicago’s adoption of a free expression statement. An academic culture that promotes identity politics, along with its subsequent student activism, presupposes that all incoming students have a deep understanding of injustice, and of the social and economic systems that exacerbate it, and uniformly agree to the forceful remedies deemed necessary to cure society’s ills.

This reshaping of higher education has not occurred in a vacuum. A humane education at the secondary level, which provides a solid foundation for understanding our civilization, is lacking. Instead, many share the progressive view that schools act as a lever of oppression, and thus opt for a curriculum that creates a lens through which students view subjects of study in terms of their own oppression – or their place among the social tyrants.

All of this takes place at the strange nexus of education as social justice movement and education as vocational training. This deprives students of an education that engages with the history and the importance of the institutions that have undergirded the West. That there has indeed been a chronicle of humans falling short and wielding power for their own benefit does not negate the importance of these institutions. Rather, it demonstrates precisely how important they are.

Does this mean that education should be devoid of politics, as some educators suggest? Not necessarily. One would be hard-pressed to identify any aspect of life that is not impacted in some manner by the state and its instruments, and thus made the object of political debate. Attempting to avoid discussion of an inherently political nature today is therefore perhaps similar to attempting to dodge rain in a storm.

Does this mean that education should be devoid of politics, as some educators suggest? Not necessarily.

Education can enrich society if it creates an understanding among students that problems exist, that many people desire a positive outcome to these problems, but that finding the best means to these ends is the product of rigorous debate. The goal for students then is to learn how to engage in positive discourse, not to defeat an enemy.

Nor is it the aim of genuine education to categorize students according to a hierarchy of oppression, which stands at odds with the concept of human dignity and individual value. Perhaps providing students with the tools of logic will allow them to understand the contradictions that exist between valuing humans and their individual “experiences” on the one hand, and labeling humans with categories that suggest their fate and lives are predetermined on the other.

Certainly, the academic malaise seen at many colleges and universities is not a cause but rather a symptom of a society that maintains conflicting assessments of what it truly wants out of education. It remains clear, however, that we would do much good by focusing on an education at the secondary level that instills in students an appreciation for civil public discourse, one which respects human dignity and engenders a societal realization that education is about character before it is about vocation, because to lack the former means the latter is built on unreliable footing.

Change will not come from a hierarchal approach, nor will pedagogical research studies, educational fads, or attempts at creating curriculum focused on social change bring about a return to the academic ideal and civil debate. For that to happen, students must be equipped with the tools of reason and a desire to take part in the conversation, not shut it down.

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Tyler is a teacher at Thales Academy, a classical school in North Carolina.