Tag Archives: University of Michigan

At the University of Michigan, a group of cowardly students forced the cancellation of a showing of the film American Sniper, claiming it “promotes anti-Muslim…rhetoric” and “create(s) an unsafe space that does not allow for positive dialogue.” Although I have not seen the movie, the various reviews I’ve seen make it clear that viewers are walking away from the film with different interpretations. Which is to say that it appears to be precisely the kind of movie that actively promotes critical thinking and creates an opportunity for students to engage in productive dialogue.

These efforts–too often successful–to preemptively foreclose debate because it might make some students uncomfortable seem to be growing in frequency. This is a disturbing trend. It’s different from the familiar habit of college administrators trying to squelch free speech because they want a nice, quiet, Stepford campus. This is college students demanding they not be exposed to ideas because they don’t want to be discomfited.

But that’s what education is about. We don’t learn unless we are made uncomfortable. The most well-educated person is the one who regularly reads those whose views are opposed to their own, who can make their intellectual opponents’ arguments as accurately–or even more so–than their opponents can, and who can accurately critique the weaknesses of their own perspective. There’s an old saying that a good research project is one in which you can believe the author’s mind could be changed.

This is the heart of the liberal arts ideal. By studying economics, my views on politics were challenged and changed. By studying anthropology and evolution, my understanding of human nature and the possibilities of human organization were shaped, which structured my views on politics. By studying psychology my perspective on the possibility of markets was refined.

If students refuse to be challenged, they will never become educated. If they run from debate by shutting it down, they will never hear challenges to their perspectives, will never learn the weaknesses of their ideas, will never learn to critically evaluate their beliefs, and will never learn to intellectually defend their understanding of the world around them.

In short, these students have rejected the ideal of the liberal arts education.

The liberal arts are a hard sell these days. People want to know how their course of study will lead to a job. All evidence is that a liberal arts education is a great basis for a broad range of careers, but perhaps too broad, because the direct connections may not exist. I can explain to students how a history major became an international shipping executive, or how an English Major ended up managing international supply chains, but the paths are so contingent, so unique and unrepeatable, that they provide little clear guidance. So students, or at least their parents, shy away from the liberal arts.

And of course careers matter, especially given the cost of college. But the reason the liberal arts are a good foundation for careers is because they train people to think and to learn, to incorporate disparate ideas from different fields and link them together to make sense of things. But not only do too few people see how that connects to careers, they no longer–assuming many people ever did–value critical thinking for itself, for its intrinsic value and the intangible value it adds to the individual’s life. They don’t value it for what it makes of a person.

This is the consequence: students who demand they not be challenged because it is uncomfortable, who demand intellectual safety over intellectual challenge, and who view their epistemic closure as right- thinking.

In the bigger picture this matters because a self-governing republic very well may require an educated populace: people who can think critically about different policy alternatives; citizens who can recognize that their own favored ideas are also imperfect; a public that can understand that vigorous public debate and open discussion of alternatives they dislike is not a threat to liberty but is the essence of liberty; a public that can accept electoral and policy losses without interpreting them as a sign of the system’s illegitimacy.

There is an irony for conservatives here. They have in many ways been at the forefront of the attack on the liberal arts, both because they don’t see enough monetary value in, for example, a theater degree, and because they object to the ways in which liberal academics have challenged their world view and made them uncomfortable. And now there are an increasing number of liberal students taking up that cause and making the same demands, but about conservative views.

And there is also an irony for liberals. In the 1960s liberal students fought for the right to freely discuss and learn about challenging ideas–they fought for intellectual openness. Today liberal students fight against free discussion and teaching of challenging ideas–they fight for intellectual closure.

The American academy is deeply imperiled by a host of factors, including rising costs, a public that doesn’t appreciate what education really does for a person, professors who don’t think it’s their job to teach the public that value (while sneering at them for not understanding it), anti-intellectual administrators, and accrediting agencies that impose ever more inflexible standards that undermine creativity and experimentation in teaching. If the idea of education is assaulted by the students as well, our last best hope for an educated public may disappear.

Category: School