by Jon Sanders
Director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life, Research Editor, John Locke Foundation
Shannon Watkins writes for Carolina Journal today about “The essential ingredient for a ‘deep education.’” What is a deep education?
Here is a snippet:
Instead of directing their message to policymakers, [Princeton philosopher Robert P.] George and [Harvard philosopher Cornel] West came to speak face-to-face with students, faculty, and residents. The two spoke about how they navigate their vastly different political views while maintaining a strong friendship, a skill seemingly rare on most college campuses. Their message and example aren’t just a much-needed antidote to an increasingly polarized culture, either. It contains an essential ingredient for what George and West call a “deep education:” the desire to be challenged in one’s most fundamental beliefs.
Indeed, George and West argue students can’t receive an authentically “deep” or “liberal” education unless they look for opportunities to be “challenged and unsettled.” So, even though their talk touched on the importance of courteously engaging with one’s intellectual opponents, the heart of their message went beyond mere platitudes to the importance of civil discourse. In their view, civil discourse is much more than politeness or putting up with others’ opinions. Far from simply tolerating those who challenge one’s beliefs, George and West insist they should be considered one’s “truest friends.”
George and West are ideological foes, but they are friends. Their lesson is vitally important for higher education, which has become so warped over the past couple of decades — first by “protecting” students from encountering challenging ideas (at least the ideas that challenge academe’s regnant leftism), and lately by declaring challenging ideas as “violence” in order to justify actual violence against those who hold such ideas. Such leaders are no longer preparing strong minds and wise leaders; they’re turning out people amenable to serving or hectoring in a police state. They’re presiding over the dimming of higher education, putting out that great light of Western Civilization.
But true academics (regardless of personal political beliefs) grieve over this enveloping darkness. George and West are among them. Their talk reminds me of Stanley Fish and Dinesh D’Souza’s, whose lessons I praised years ago in “Cherish the many things in life above politics.” Their test of a deep education as when students seek to be “challenged and unsettled” reminds me of N.C. State’s old definition of diversity that actively sought “a conflict of ideas.”
Last year I wrote about local academics “Helping Society Return to Civil Debate“:
Connie Ledoux Book, president of Elon University, wrote about the importance of civil dialogue, arguing that “We can teach our students how to disagree.” Colleges and universities bear a responsibility for teaching students how to disagree and debate civilly, Book argued. When students are taught how to exchange ideas properly, they become more engaged in civic life.
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, author and chaired professor of ethics at Duke University, made the case that society needs good argument. He opened with a compelling example that sounds quite impossible today — but which also points to that better way that also seems so distant right now:
“‘Best of Enemies,’ by Osha Gray Davidson, tells an instructive story of overcoming extreme polarization. Ann Atwater was a leader in the Durham civil rights movement. C. P. Ellis was Exalted Cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan. Yet they became close friends. How? …”
I concluded the piece this way:
Differences of opinion — ideas in conflict — are not anomalies to be stomped out in brute outrage. Rather they are to be valued because competition leads to innovations. Competition in the marketplace of ideas means finding manifold better ways to improve society.
Keeping politics in its proper perspective also improves society in the meantime, by making it a pleasanter place for all of us. But we have to push toward that goal, together, and the more contributing to that push, the better.