Obstacles To Curiosity


What is the aim of a university?

[John Baldessari, “Ear Trumpet”]

That is the kind of question that sounds fundamental, but is built on a couple of big assumptions: that the various things a university does are best understood (theoretically or practically) as serving one overarching aim, and that the various kinds of universities are best understood as serving the same aim. If said aim is to be described with any substance (and not just a placeholder like “education”), I’m doubtful about both of these assumptions, but let’s put that aside for a moment.

I mention the question because it was asked by political theorist John Tomasi in a talk he recently gave here at the University of South Carolina. Tomasi, earlier this year, left his professorship at Brown University to take over the leadership of the Heterodox Academy, and in his talk shared his vision for the organization. (The question was also raised here.)

I have no great love for this organization, which has as its wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing mission statement, “to improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement,” and which in practice relies on rather narrow and shallow conceptions of these ideas, according to which the main threat to them are things like leftwing students complaining about Charles Murray.

The organization’s previous leader, Jonathan Haidt, would tell audiences that universities must choose as their telos “truth” over “social justice.” Tomasi said he does not care for this framing. Partly this is owed, he said, to the trouble an organization aimed at professors might have growing its membership by billing itself as “anti-social-justice”—but one might hope there is more to it than just marketing concerns.

As a possible replacement for the “truth” telos, Tomasi tested out an alternative: curiosity. And he suggested a certain metaphor for what he thinks universities should be like: “gardens of curiosity.”* The idea, he said, is that universities should cultivate curiosity in their students, and that Heterodox Academy would be about promoting this aim.

Let’s take this suggestion seriously for a moment. If Tomasi is interested in dedicating the Heterodox Academy to the mission of cultivating curiosity in students, what should the organization see as the main obstacles to student curiosity, the main problems to tackle?

Here are what seem like five plausible targets to me:

  1. Instrumentalization. From many quarters students get the idea that university education is a kind of job training, and that mentality seems discouraging towards curiosity.
  2. Poverty. Economic insecurity and related pressures on some students leave them with less time or energy for studies, engagement with materials, interaction with faculty, etc.
  3. Entertainment. Entertainment has its place, and the internet has brought great benefits, but it must be acknowledged that today’s historically unprecedented cheap and easy availability of massive amounts of entertainment, all right there in one’s pocket, poses a threat to opportunities for the kind of thoughtful curiosity we hope for from students.
  4. Unengaging Teaching. Boring teaching risks turning students off to learning and large classes tend to free them from some of the incentives towards engagment with the material. (To the extent to which large classes are the result of budget constraints, poor funding or funding choices may be an approproate target.)
  5. Legislative Interference. State institutions face the threat of lawmakers making system-wide demands on curriculum and teaching that aim to prevent students from learning about controversial or unfamiliar ideas that may spur their curiosity.

I’d be curious to hear what others think are obstacles to curiosity. Perhaps together we can provide some items for the agenda of an academic organization whose new leader is interested in it doing better work.

* He actually said “walled gardens of curiosity.” Why a “walled” garden? To keep politicization out of classrooms. What kinds of politicization can be kept out, and what kinds should be kept out? That was not discussed. Also not discussed: that complaints about “politicization” are sometimes just complaints about efforts to draw attention to unnoticed (because ‘normal’) existing political elements, and so are themselves political.

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david
1 month ago

One obstacle to curiosity is having and needing to maintain a preconceived idea of what is the ‘right’ or ‘correct’ answer/viewpoint rather than trying to foster in students the value of a more open-ended, collaborative and disinterested learning process . Being able and willing to change one’s mind about an answer or argument rather than needing to be ‘right’ all the time would also help . Another problematic issue is the idea of the professor as the PhD – holding ‘authority’ who imparts knowledge to passive students, rather than having the teaching/learning exercise being more of a joint attempt between teachers and students inquiring together to learn (or at least somehow get closer) to the truth. The world still remains a fundamentally mysterious place and many academics seem to have forgotten this. Some humility on the part of instructors (even in philosophy) would go a long way.Report

Nate Sheff
1 month ago

I think 4 should be expanded to general issues with pedagogy. How many professors with named chairs have any pedagogical training? Or part-time instructors?

Then there’s the grading problem, which ties into the first obstacle. Students place a lot of stock in grades, because they understand their GPA to be a major part of the credentialing process mediated by a university. Grades inhibit learning. A lot of research on grading bears this out, and no amount of armchair hand-wringing about rigor will make that go away.

One more thing which I don’t think is necessarily a problem for Tomasi but a potential stumbling block: curiosity is often open-ended in a way that the university’s structure, with separate departments and mostly-unchanging syllabi, might inhibit.Report

david
Reply to  Nate Sheff
1 month ago

Nate Sheff is right about the emphasis on grades as also constituting an obstacle to student curiosity. Ironically, if the students were more curious about the material, they would get better grades, an in a more organic way, than if they were just working hard in the class to get an A or whatever.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  david
1 month ago

That’s probably right if their curiosity happens to organically turn to the subject matter of the class. But curiosity has a way of sending you down a rabbit hole that may be very helpful for long-term intellectual growth, but not so helpful to building the foundation of knowledge and skills that a particular class aims to do.Report

David Wallace
1 month ago

I suggest as a potentially pretty serious obstacle to curiosity:

Student and faculty perceptions that campus is ideologically uniform, that various topics are off-limits for discussion and have ‘right’ answers, that various forms of heterodoxy will get them into trouble, and that only certain forms of intervention into controversy are welcome.

This is without prejudice as to whether the perceptions are true, or how important this is in relation to Justin’s 1-5. (I also think 5 feeds off on-campus ideological conformity: legislative constraints on HE normally come at least nominally motivated by skepticism about how well campus actually does at creating a curiosity-friendly environment, and it gets easier to fend them off the more the skepticism can be rebutted.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Heterodox Academy’s own recent research on this is quite helpful: https://heterodoxacademy.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/CES-Report-2022-FINAL.pdf .

(I have a much more positive view of HA than Justin.)Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
1 month ago

I do agree, and it’s a good point; that said,
(a) your point (5) is likewise concerned with a fairly narrow set of issues;
(b) there are broader corrosive effects to a general culture that come from specific cases (analogously, defending free speech quite often means defending the speech rights of fairly unsympathetic people, partly out of concern for those broader effects);
(c) it would not be unreasonable for HA to focus on a subset of issues under its relatively-direct influence. I mean, I suppose technically the greatest threat to curiosity at present is nuclear war, given that cinders lack curiosity, but I’m not expecting HA to do much about that either.)Report

Animal Symbolicum
1 month ago

In English, “curiosity” is used to refer to an eagerness to learn or to know something. Sounds innocuous enough, perhaps even good.

But as the ever unfashionable Thomas Aquinas and his ilk have observed, curiosity — curiositas — can be a vice. In general, this is because the eagerness referred to is either unshaped by a telos or shaped by the wrong telos. Curiosity motivates not learning but unformed learning at best and deformed learning at worst.

On this view, to settle on the cultivation of curiosity as a telos of education is in fact to shirk the responsibility of discussing what the telos of education should be.Report

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
1 month ago

Would it be correct to assume that, from a Thomistic standpoint, “deformed learning” is, roughly, any learning that does not result in affirming the greatness of the deity and/or the truth of Christianity (as Aquinas interpreted it)? If so, then public universities in the U.S. (and possibly, private universities that get substantial government support in some way or another) probably could not adopt “non-deformed” learning as a goal without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

P.s. There are of course some universities and colleges with a religious “mission,” but they aren’t public institutions.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Louis F. Cooper
Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
1 month ago

I think it’d be incorrect to assume that. But I’m no Aquinas scholar. I can only offer you what I, a non-believer, take from him.

The basic mistakes that learning-motivated-by-curiositas makes are (1) to seek merely fragmentary knowledge, (2) to think that one’s knowledge of a fragment is important to know simply because one is eager to know it, (3) to fail to acknowledge that one’s object of learning is part of a wider, deeper, richer reality, (4) to fail to appreciate that one’s own understanding of reality has limits, and (5) to fail to pursue a more synoptic understanding.

Some expressions of curiositas are eagerness to learn for the sake of self-aggrandizement and eagerness to learn for the sake of exercising power. For examples of the first, see Jeff’s comment about knowingness below. For examples of the second, see efforts to turn the university into a manufacturing plant for social activists.

This is why I think it’s important not to settle with the cultivation of curiosity. It’s a way of avoiding the difficult discussion of what the telos of education should be.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Animal Symbolicum
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
1 month ago

Thank you for clarifying what you meant.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
1 month ago

Of course! I appreciate the question. My first comment was a bit gnomic.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Animal Symbolicum
ABD
ABD
1 month ago

“…according to which the main threat to them are things like leftwing students complaining about Charles Murray” (emphasis added)

This Rush Limbaugh-style mixing of satire and slander is unhelpful and not far enough away from just trolling.Report

ABD
ABD
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

I see now that what I wrote may have been ambiguous. Thanks for adding the link, as it is what I meant to reference (i.e., the OP portrayed the HA crowd as if they were worried about people “complaining” about—that is criticizing—Charles Murray, when the famous case included not only deplatforming, etc. but also assault outside the venue). The line from the OP was additionally a low blow in that it distorts a defense of principle with guilt by association with the defended, which is exactly what bad-faith actors on the right do when they try to tar defenders of habeas corpus via association with terrorists or Justice Jackson with sexual abusers of children. There’s way too much strawman-ing going on, especially on social media, under the guise of “half-joking,” where the joking part authorizes the logic of comedic exaggeration, which allows the half-serious part to exploit slander (a move Rush Limbaugh used regularly).Report

Moti Gorin
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
1 month ago

Justin, on your understanding of what the Heterodox Academy says and does, is their major worry really that students get “worked up enough to protest certain speakers or object to certain ideas”? From what I’ve gathered (admittedly not all that much), this isn’t their concern at all.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
1 month ago

[S]tudents getting worked up enough to protest certain speakers or object to certain ideas has been a focal point of Haidt & co., and the notion that it is among the serious threats to higher education seems ridiculous to me.

As with the OP, this seriously misdescribes the Charles Murray case. If you want to pick a nit about something HxA has spoken out against, you really should look to a different case. At the very least, you ought to describe this one accurately enough as to represent the concern. And notice, again, that the concern here was partly one of genuine violence. I hope you appreciate how it looks to see this characterized as “complaining” and “protesting”, when terms like “violence” are otherwise becoming so inflated in our public spaces.

As for HxA, I understand their target for intervention to be an academic culture that breeds out disagreement with a host of mechanisms that encourage ideological conformity, to the detriment of the fruits of research. And it looks like there’s good evidence that this is actually happening in some quarters. HxA is also concerned that these educational trends in U.S. higher education contribute to a growing culture of intolerance among American people, and to the sorry state of our political system. The social science data on this isn’t in, I don’t think, although PEW has been tracking growing political polarization in the U.S. since the 1990s, and there is some evidence that heavy social media use is having a deleterious effect on the mental well-being of young people, and is correlated with a surge in depression, anxiety, and self-harm among adolescents since 2012. At any rate, I understand HxA’s concern with student “protests” of the sort we saw at Middlebury to be part of this broader attention paid to academic cultures of ideological monovision, intolerance, and the poor research and teaching produced by such cultures.

Maybe things will prove to be such that episodes like Murray’s visit to Middlebury aren’t so bad (in some sense). But anyone who wants to publicly poo-poo what HxA is up to owes it the public to give an accurate characterization of their concerns.Report

Tom Hurka
1 month ago

Why does the Heterodox Academy have to address all possible obstacles to curiosity, rather than focusing on just some? Did the Academy under Haidt concern itself with every possible way the university can pursue truth?Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Tom Hurka
1 month ago

It doesn’t have to. But if they do indeed think that there is some particular thing that is the central concern of a university, then you would expect that they would take anything that blocks that thing as a central concern. If some obstacles are seen as significant and others are not, then they may be operating with a slightly different thing as their central concern.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 month ago

I don’t think this follows. HA is not a general-purpose university-support group. Just because something is the central concern of the university, it doesn’t follow that it’s HA’s central concern. HA is pretty explicit about its central concerns: they’re that subset of reasons which threaten a university’s central concern and which arise from deficiencies in ‘open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement’.Report

Jeff
1 month ago

Following Jonathan Lear, I’d nominate knowingness. This is a problem that crosses political and ideological lines. As a faculty member at a liberal arts college, conservative parents and students are apt to tell me what I think or what I teach without caring to learn what goes on in my classrooms. Just as many left-leaning students tell me–with great confidence–that they already know that certain books or thinkers or ideas are classist or racist or sexist without bothering to read them. Curiosity doesn’t have a chance in a world where we already know everything and where we are too uninterested in learning otherwise. I wish more of us were willing to be surprised out of this knowingness. It would certainly help with Justin’s point 4 above. It may even help with point 3: students might be genuinely entertained with how wrong they were when it comes to what they thought they knew if education was more willing to take on the varieties of knowingness that exist in the world today.Report

Sam Duncan
1 month ago

Something like your number 2 is probably the most important one, but focusing on poverty I think misses the larger issue. Poverty is part of it, but I think putting it in terms of economic pressure is better. I have a lot of students who aren’t by any sane definition of the term in “poverty”. They are already under economic pressure though and in most cases borrowing to go to school or paying out of pocket makes that pressure a lot worse. In light of that pure curiosity seems like a luxury to a lot of them and one they might like to indulge in but can’t afford. When they are grabbed by an intellectual problem they sometimes seem ashamed of it. This isn’t because they’re anti-intellectual, but because it seems frivolous. And economic pressures lead to time pressures. Time spent on pure curiosity is more of your precious time you can’t spend with your family, your hobbies you had going into school, or just cleaning the damn house. Can you blame them? Given how tight jobs in philosophy how would you feel if you got really into say painting or playing music in grad school? A lot of this isn’t going away short of some larger changes in our society that make the economy less brutally competitive. One change that would be particularly helpful is to make community college free. Not only would that free students like mine from a huge source of economic pressure but it would force four year schools to drop tuition to remain competitive.
4 is also a huge problem, but I can’t believe you don’t mention the elephant in the room: Adjuncting. Look no matter how conscientious you are as an adjunct you just aren’t going to do as good a job as equally dedicated full time faculty. If you have 8 classes at three schools and four different preps you just can’t do as well as someone who has say 5 (the standard CC load) and 2 preps. That’s not a reflection on adjuncts’ character or dedication but a statement to the obstacles they face. Though let’s be honest even if you start as a dedicated teacher as an adjunct it’s almost impossible not to burn out and end up doing the bare minimum given how nastily they’re exploited by full time faculty (God help if they should ever have to teach anything under the 300 level) and their institutions. After about four years I think a goodly portion of adjuncts are mumbling through the Powerpoint slides that it seems so many companies are included with so many books these days. And again I can’t blame them any more than I blame the guy at the drive through at Bojangles for being unfailingly sullen with me.
Of course fixing 2 and 4 would require money. My modest proposal is to build on one of the few great ideas the Trump administration ever had and tax the bejesus out of rich school’s endowments. I look forward to any number of self-styled Marxists, Rawlsians, and other professional egalitarians displays of pretzel logic in telling me why they find this idea evil despite their deep love of equality.Report

David Wallace
1 month ago

On reflection, I think there’s something a little odd about the way this post is framed. Justin asks, “If Tomasi is interested in dedicating the Heterodox Academy to the mission of cultivating curiosity in students, what should the organization see as the main obstacles to student curiosity, the main problems to tackle?

But of course Tomasi does not intend to dedicate the Heterodox Academy to the mission of cultivating curiosity in students. HA’s mission is “to improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement”. That’s not that something Jonathan Haidt happened to think and that Tomasi is free to change: it’s HA’s official mission statement in its nonprofit filing. Tomasi would be breaking the law if he used HA resources, including his own on-the-clock time, to advocate something different.

Given that starting point, it seems obvious that Tomasi’s reason for orienting around curiosity rather than truth is that he thinks that’s a better framing for how HA aims to ‘improve the quality of research and education in universities’. But HA can’t just lobby for anything that will improve the quality of research and education in universities: their specific mandate is to do it ‘by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement’. Most aspects of Justin’s (1)-(4)
probably fall outside that, although his (5) falls within it; in any case, they can’t be defended as HA goals simply because they might increase curiosity in universities. (And my earlier suggestion about ideological uniformity and a dissent-intolerant internal culture also falls within it, and was motivated by an assumption that suggestions needed to fall within HA’s remit, though I hadn’t fully thought that through at the time.)

(Of course, we could just ask the more abstracted question, ‘what should we do if our goal was to increase curiosity’? But the OP is more than 50% about HA specifically, so I assume it’s not only intended as a springboard for that more abstacted question.)Report

Justin Kalef
1 month ago

I agree with David Wallace that the question of what could make students more curious has an imperfect connection with the proper role of Heterodox Academy. But I think there are a number of things that stand in the way of students becoming curious.

Here are a few, off the top of my head:

  1. The radical dumbing-down of the K-12 system over several decades, combined with a sense that college is an extension of the K-12 system.. We are now at a point where students enter college or university with a clear, and harmful, expectation of what could reasonably be expected of them. Most students seem to enter college with their natural curiosity beaten out of them by long exposure to what is presented to them as ‘learning’, in which they are given top grades from exhibiting little more than an ability to game the system. In order to get students to be curious in their time at college, one has to first get them to unlearn some bad habits they already had long before getting to us. Teaching this unlearning is very difficult and involved, and there is little incentive to drive professors even to make the attempt.
  2. The lack of reasonable amounts of time set aside for weekly work and reflection on each course. Many of today’s students tend to see their time at university as a race to the finish: they want credit for passing as many courses as they can (ideally, with good grades) in the least amount of time. Many students are encouraged in various ways to take on full or even greater-than-full course loads, all while working outside of class, engaging in other school activities, or just spending vast amounts of time on needless activities. The reaction of professors and administrators is generally to treat this as normal, so a strange culture emerges. I’ve had a number of students recently tell me that they don’t expect to have to work on their courses during weekends or other breaks, or even in the evenings. They simply don’t see their involvement in their courses has helping to set them up for the rest of their lives: instead, any work they have to do beyond the bare minimum expected by the least demanding professors just seems like a pointless hassle. This makes their engagement with the material very superficial and rushed, making it difficult for curiosity to get any foothold on them.
  3. Permissiveness toward very poor work and study habits. A student recently told me that he was about to graduate after over fifty courses — over a dozen of which were in philosophy — but that my course was the only one for which he had bothered to get a copy of the textbook. I asked him what grades he tended to get: As and Bs, he said. He informed me that he never did the readings for any of his other courses, even if his professors put them online for him to read for free. He only did the readings for my course because he saw that he would fail his weekly quizzes if he didn’t (I make the quizzes very tough to game for such students who merely use the standard quiz-taking strategies). If students can get an A or B without even doing the readings, then why would more than a minute few of them be motivated to do the readings at all, let alone take them seriously?
  4. Distraction-rich environments in classrooms and at home. Curiosity requires sustained thought. Students tend to spend most of their time — even during class! — in thrall to their electronic masters, designed to keep the students constantly distracted. When the students take notes, or pretend to, they use these same devices. Small wonder that it’s so difficult to cultivate within them an appreciation for the subtle tensions that one needs to develop a philosophical curiosity.
  5. The promotion of crude, simplistic, overarching and dismissive worldviews. From university administrators and indeed from many professors, students tend to be given a simplistic, black-and-white picture of the world they live in. The history of civilization is presented as one long struggle in which the very same things that people fight over in the year 2022 have always been the things to struggle for as we move toward the light. There’s no question about where to go to reach the light, no question about how the different strands of the ongoing struggle may stand in conflict with one another, no clear picture of what the resulting utopia will be, no sense that anything of importance has happened in history other than the very same struggle we’re engaged in now. Also, they’re given the impression that there has been very little improvement along the lines set out by the struggle until today (which naturally makes the study of the past, or of the philosophical underpinnings behind society, seem pointless: wouldn’t it be easier to just throw it all away?) If one accepts this worldview — and no other serious worldview tends to be presented — then there seems to be very little of importance to engage one’s curiosity within or without it. Moreover, those who do follow their curiosity tend to ask the wrong sorts of questions. It might seem difficult for students seeing all this to understand why curiosity would be worth anything at all.

Report

Nate Sheff
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

Are these meant to address specifically full-time university students, or all students in higher ed? At community colleges, 2, 3, and 4 are big asks. I’ve taught online night classes where I can hear kids in the background of some of my best students. A lot of students have non-negotiable lives outside of school, which can be frustrating because we’re 100% focused on what’s happening in school, but that’s how it is.Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Nate Sheff
1 month ago

Hello, Nate. I’ve heard this sort of response before, but I don’t see how the response is meant to work.

If a recipe for a cake calls for the batter to be baked at a certain temperature for sixty minutes, and you only have five or at most ten minutes in your schedule owing to constraints on your time, then it doesn’t matter how legitimate, justified, or unfair those constraints are: what you will get under those circumstances will not be a cake. The solution is not to adjust the baking time, but to find a way to get more time, or bake fewer cakes and make them count.

If you want to run a marathon in half a year and can’t even run fifty feet without running out of breath, then you will need an intensive training program. It might be that you have far too much else going on in your life, for reasons that are not your fault, that make that training schedule impossible. But if you can only put in a few minutes of training every week, and so on, then you simply won’t be able to run the marathon when the time comes.

I’m not indifferent to the plight of people who cannot do the things they want to do. I wish the world were such that everyone would have time to make a careful study of philosophy or other academic subjects. If someone works out a way for people to have more sustained time to do those things, I’ll pitch in and help. As it is, I just advise students to take more time (which is the opposite of what they seem to be told by everyone else). I recently received a grateful email from a student of mine from a dozen years ago. His financial means were very limited and he had to work forty hours each week just to make ends meet. I advised him to start by working out how many hours, beyond that, he had to give to his schooling, not counting the time he spent commuting to and from campus. He said he could handle another twenty. I said that, in that case, he should take only two courses per semester. He took my advice, completed his degree years later, and went on to do very well at law school. He thanked me because, he said, he could see that he would never have succeeded in meeting his goals if he had gone about his studies as superficially as he had previously been doing.

Now, what is it that you propose instead of this? That we should drastically lower the standards for everyone, to the extent that students can earn an A without doing any of their readings or focusing on their work without distractions? Or that we should count such work as earning an A so long as the student seems to have such excuses? Or something else? (If something else, than what, please?)

Or are you in fact saying that putting in just a few minutes of work per week, doing none of one’s readings, and constantly being distracted is no real impediment to learning philosophy or cultivating curiosity?Report

Preston Stovall
1 month ago

Odd that the meanings of terms like “violence” and “harm” should become, in the mouths of some, so inflated, while genuine violence is glossed here as “leftwing students complaining”. In another venue the political valence of the distortion would of course be switched, but this is Daily Nous, so at least the comment sections tend to show some viewpoint diversity!
 
What’s surprising, even from someone with such a grudge against HxA’s advocacy of viewpoint diversity as Justin, is the characterization of “leftwing students complaining” as the sort of problem HxA is directed at rectifying by encouraging viewpoint diversity. It’s not as though HxA, or its members, agree with Murray’s position on any particular issue. But insofar as there are recognized institutional mechanism for the students to invite Murray to speak, then violent interference with that speech should not only not be tolerated – it should not even be part of the academic culture.
 
Justin has repeatedly indicated that he does not think HxA has made a good case for the claim that the contemporary U.S. University system is working its way through problems associated with a lack of viewpoint diversity. But that needs supported with a discussion of the sorts of things HxA is advocating for that both characterizes them accurately, and discusses them in sufficient detail (surely “leftwing students complaining” as a gloss on the violence at Middlebury fails on both counts).
 
And note that none of the replies to the BBS essay (“Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science) that kicked off the formation of HxA in 2015 (together with Haidt and Lukianoff’s essay in The Atlantic, later published as The Coddling of the American Mind) objected to either of the two main claims in that essay: there is a marked absence of viewpoint diversity in the social sciences; and this absence sometimes harms the research coming out of these disciplines. Looking back, not only at the state of play on college campuses today, but also at the fate of social-scientific concepts like implicit bias and stereotype threat, it’s clear that HxA and F.I.R.E. (of which Lukianoff is the president) were ahead of the curve in 2015.
 
Since that time, HxA’s ranks have swelled, becoming what is probably the most intellectually diverse organization in the academy. Its members are actively engaged in a good-faith effort to communicate with people across ideological divides, and to encourage a culture of such communication both within the academy, and via outreach to other institutions and the public. Kudos to them for starting a new chapter in that effort.Report

Sam Duncan
1 month ago

So I’ve thought about this more and I have a few thoughts I’ll try to put less polemically than last time, and also proofread a little more carefully: 1. What does annoy me about all this is that an emphasis on students being afraid to express their thoughts really misstates the obstacles my students face. The biggest one really is economic pressure and the though that intellectual pursuits are frivolous. In light of that it does make me angry when very privileged people, whether philosophers at the more Leiterrific schools or random rich people, presume to tell me what hampers classroom discussion and debate or even what *the* problems of higher ed are. These people have no firsthand experience of being a professor or student at a college like mine and as far as I can tell no desire to fill in these considerable gaps in their knowledge. And keep in mind that a community college like mine is much more reflective of the usual undergraduate experience than is Middlebury College, Rhodes College, or UVA. (We don’t have the money or clout to even get Charles Murray or Peter Singer). After all, something like 35% of undergraduates go to community colleges and more than half of the rest go 4 year colleges without competitive admissions, which generally look a lot more like community colleges than they do small prestigious private liberal arts schools, “public ivies” like UVA, Berkeley, UMichigan, William and Mary, or UNC Chapel Hill, or even slightly less prestigious flagship state schools. 2. I wonder how much of “bias” against conservatives turns out to be an effect of what people say but how they say it. While many conservatives are respectful charitable conversations partners and plenty of liberals are huge ol’ jerks, it is impossible to deny that a style of purposefully rude, disrespectful, and even deeply cruel discourse is valorized on the right in a way that it simply isn’t on the left. If you come into my class and try to treat a classmate who disagrees with you like Tucker Carlson or Donald Trump treats anyone who disagrees with them well then I will put a stop to that very quickly. If on the other hand you take David Frum or David French as your model of how to discourse with others then that’s fine and good. I do get the impression that a lot of supposed free speech cases have more to do with the person who claims censorship not being able to play well with others, whether colleagues or students, than they do any political content to the person’s speech. 3. The more I think about it the more misguided giving curiosity the main position seems. For one thing, some forms of curiosity are just bad. More than once I’ve Googled some horrible crime I heard mentioned in passing out of curiosity and my life has never been better for this. And who’s more curious than the most insufferable and vicious gossip? Moreover, plenty of people who are curious in less obviously nasty ways are not in epistemically great shape. Whatever else you might say of Joe Rogan I would never describe the man as lacking curiosity. (To be fair I probably have more ambivalent feelings about Rogan than many readers but I take it no one would say he’s a model of epistemic virtue). Or to take a more pointed example, many conspiracy theorists not only seem to be deeply curious people but to have ended up with their whackadoodle beliefs partially as a result of their curiosity. Some sort of curiosity is probably an epistemic virtue but some sorts like morbid curiosity and that of the gossip seem clearly vicious and even the better forms seem to to need to be tempered by other virtues to be truly valuable.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Sam Duncan
1 month ago

Happy to see someone else wary of curiosity’s serving as the telos of education.

Curiosity sounds good to Tomasi no doubt because it sounds free-market-ish: open-ended, bottom-up, and not-too-substantive. That ideology might produce fruit in other domains but not in education. Education is Bildung, or paideia. Pretending it’s not is one reason why we find ourselves in this shambles.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
1 month ago

And I should emphasize: Whatever else it involves, the project of paideia must involve creating space for viewpoint diversity.

Letting the cultivation of curiosity be our aim will not create that space because, as I suggested in an earlier post, curiosity cultivates haphazardness and narrowness — the opposite of a viewpoint.Report

Samuel Schubert
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
1 month ago

I am not so sure about ‘viewpoint diversity’ as an ideal. All sciences, including philosophical science, should aim to discover objective truth – that is not contentious. As soon as you start talking about ‘viewpoint diversity’ as something we should make space for, you are pandering to the flat earth theorist and all the rest. Here is an alternative idea: as a descriptive point, viewpoint diversity is unavoidable, because some people are less intelligent/well-informed than others. But educators, guided by truth-related aims, should not try to ‘make space’ for such viewpoint diversity to persist, but to stamp it out by helping those who are mistaken come to have true rather than false beliefs.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Samuel Schubert
1 month ago

But that assumes reliable, stable consensus amongst educators as to which beliefs are true. That’s fair for ridiculous extremes like flat-earth, and also for long-established scientific results, but breaks down fairly quickly. It also risks encouraging an approach to HE that downplays learning how to assess conflicting views in favor of one that just passes down received truths.Report

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Samuel Schubert
1 month ago

As an approach to history and the historically-oriented “sciences” (e.g., historically-oriented sociology or historically-oriented social science in general), and also political philosophy, just to mention a few subjects, it won’t do to say the aim should be “objective truth” and leave it at that. There are some canons of “objectivity” when it comes to method, but I don’t think there is an objective Truth about a lot of important historical questions. There are different interpretations of events and causes, some better grounded and more persuasive than others, but no final Truth once you get past the raw factual data and into the realm of interpretation.

In his Debates with Historians (pb. ed., 1958), Pieter Geyl begins the opening essay this way:

Agatha Christie, in one of her witty books, The Moving Finger, introduces a girl fresh from school and lets her run on about what she thinks of it. “Such a lot of things seem to me such rot. History, for instance. Why, it’s quite different out of different books!” To this her sensible elderly confidant replies: “That is its real interest.”

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