The danger in ideas

Some years ago I was asked to address a homeschooling organization about what homeschooled students, and particularly Christian ones, should expect at university. They asked me because I was homeschooled and then spent many years in university, first as student and then as adjunct professor. I've never made a secret of being Christian or conservative, but I found that even professors who didn't agree with me were willing to engage with what I had to say - provided, as I pointed out to the room, that I showed deference appropriate to the fact that I was a student in the areas in which they had gained expertise. Argue with them, respect them, pray for them, was my advice to students who found themselves in disagreement with their professors. This was when half my audience stormed out of the room. The issue, as I had totally failed to recognize, was evolution. Students who had a strong antecedent commitment to the falsity of evolution couldn't avoid it, and didn't know what to do about it. Neither did I.

At the time, I confess I didn't have a lot of sympathy for my audience. I didn't - and still don't - share their concerns about evolution or their meta-opinion about the importance of the issue. But today the question seems to me much thornier than it did at the time. To see why, observe history professor David Hollinger last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the great value of education.

But over all, the human sciences promote the critical thinking necessary to a democratic society. John Stuart Mill and John Dewey and the Harvard Red Book of 1945 were right about that. Those Texas Republicans who for a while had a platform that called for the end of a critical-thinking component in public education because it might lead students to doubt the authority of the family and of their inherited religion were also right, and for the same reasons. The Texans understood what education in the human sciences means. They knew full well who their enemy was.

The great value of education, according to Hollinger, is that it promotes a sort of democracy incompatible with Texan decency. People like Hollinger illustrate the overall fact that students get radicalized and turned away from their traditions at school. Hollinger-style politics is also why the Heterodox Academy project exists: the university has taken a hard turn to the left, and conservatives are (in all but name) minorities on campus. The project runs a list of colleges which they claim are not indoctrination machines here. There's also the delightful Professor Watchlist, a crowdsourced place to identify campus ideologues - basically Rate My Professor for politics. These things can help, but in the end, going to university entails taking a certain risk, namely that the leftward current of the institution will carry you along with it.

I'm not suggesting that no one should go to university. There are a number of good reasons for doing so. Maybe it will help you get a job (though do independent research on that first). Maybe you're aiming not at any particular job, but at the white collar world generally (though you might do a bit of reading, starting with David Graeber's On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, on that too). Or maybe (this was my situation) you are fascinated by philosophy and love to argue, all the better if you're in the minority. In that case, ye plays the game and ye takes yer chances.

I am suggesting that we should all recognize that, contrary to what Professor Hollinger believes, Mill was not right. To believe the unrestricted marketplace of ideas leads to truth is as naïve as believing that the unrestricted financial marketplace leads to stability. I think the medieval view of both sorts of markets is much more sensible: they function best when they are controlled by an institution that aims at human flourishing. That is why the much mocked Index of Prohibited Books was not a list of unreadable books, but a list of book that good Catholics could not read unless they first gained a university education. Critical thinking used to be a tool that would protect you against sophistry and ideology. That's not what you'll get at university today.