by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
George Leef of the Martin Center ponders a negative impact of American higher education.
Colleges and universities used to proclaim that their mission was to give students a broad education that would expand their intellectual vistas—one that would open their minds. Most still say that, but the sad truth is that what passes for higher education these days often does the opposite.
Many professors and some whole academic fields instill in students the habits of mind that betoken fundamentalism rather than free inquiry. They want students to conform to their views and rebuke them for disagreeing or even asking the wrong questions.
The growing problem of fundamentalist thinking is the focus of Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro. The authors are, respectively, a professor of arts and humanities at Northwestern University and the president of that university.
In their book, they that the nation’s peace and progress is endangered by an atavistic mindset in which people base their beliefs on some inerrant text (sacred or secular) that purports to answer all questions. Because that text cannot be wrong, those who follow it see all evidence as confirming their belief system and regard anyone who disagrees as foolish or evil.
Fundamentalists, the authors write, don’t engage in rational argument, which entails weighing other points of view and objectively considering evidence, but instead assert what they insist are truths. There is nothing to be gained by trying to argue with fundamentalists, but doing so might be dangerous, as they’re often intolerant of dissent.
All right, but what does that have to do with higher education, where minds are broadened and people seek truth?
Morson and Schapiro are unhappy to report that fundamentalist habits of mind have invaded our colleges. Bear in mind that they are at one of America’s elite, extremely selective universities.