by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The Martin Center offers a condensed version of a recent speech Wake Forest professor James Otteson delivered on topics linked to intellectual diversity on college campuses.
I come to you as a professor—not as a politician, nor as an advocate of my personal political views. I have personal political views, of course, but I believe they should be irrelevant to my professional work as an academic. Indeed, the main thing I would like to convince you of is that there is such a thing as a professional academic and that the crisis we’re facing in higher education arises ultimately from a failure to appreciate what it means to be a professional academic.
When problems arise in any organization, often they are related to a disagreement about, or a failure to embrace, the purpose and mission of the organization.
What is the purpose of higher education? One often hears that the purpose of higher education is the “pursuit of truth.” I agree, but I believe the emphasis should be on the word pursuit rather than on the word truth.
About many things, it is hard to know when, or even whether, we have hit upon truth; and there can be a danger to focusing on truth, because it is when people believe that they are already in possession of the truth that they can become inclined to stop searching, inquiring, and examining.
I propose, therefore, that we reframe our mission by conceiving of the purpose of higher education as two-fold: first, to transmit the central elements of the “great conversation” that has characterized our tradition of learning since at least the time of Socrates; and second, to respect and preserve the millennia-long profession of inquiry that has enabled us to reach the astounding intellectual heights we have achieved.