Teach the Habit of Debate

February 7, 2013

While researching the modern college campus for my book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (Encounter, 2012), even I was surprised by how deeply speech codes and the groupthink they help create—and the administrative bloat that promotes both—run in the modern academy. There is no easy solution to this problem, but teaching students to seek out those with differing views for rational debate on important topics would foster their intellectual development.

This simple practice is essential to overcoming “confirmation bias” and parochialism. The modern academy teaches students through word and, more powerfully, through example, the exact opposite of independent thought. Students and professors report that it is not “safe” to “hold unpopular views on campus,” and research indicates that a strong relationship exists between one’s level of education and the number of dissenting viewpoints encountered: Those with the least education talk to the greatest number of people with whom they disagree, while those with the highest level of education talk to the lowest.

An academy that takes its intellectual obligations seriously would strive to reverse this trend. Educated people should see it as a duty to poke their heads outside their echo chambers and cultivate the habits of a curious, skeptical mind. Instead, our campuses create consequences for having divergent or irreverent opinions, legitimize cheap tactics for getting out of meaningful debates, and create awkward and unproductive energy around issues that should be freely discussed.

If we could succeed in teaching students the value of actively pursuing intelligent debate with thinkers who do not share their current views, we might begin to reverse the calcification of ideas on campus, and even elevate the tedious national discourse to which we have all become accustomed.