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Duke Prof on How Liberal Students Are Left Behind

Duke University Professor Michael Munger spoke on Milton Friedman Day—July 31, the economist and writer’s birthday—at an event sponsored by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, adapting his comments about professors’ failures to challenge liberal students published on the Pope Center’s website last week.

Munger argues that particularly in areas of study dominated by liberal professors, conservative students often are seen as having “incorrect” views. Perhaps counterintuitively, though, conservative students might benefit from this—and liberal students miss out. Munger relays statements from a department chair speaking of how she allocates her efforts:

At [a department heads] meeting, the chair of one of those departments said, "I find that I don't really need to spend much time with the liberal students, because they already have it right. I spend most of my time arguing with the conservative students. That's how I spend my time in class."

This woman was teaching conservative students how to think about arguments and evidence; how to make your arguments in a persuasive way. She was educating them.

Her liberal students? They were given that one-question test. They were just certified as already "knowing what they need to know."

Torch readers know that the purpose of higher education is not just to memorize a “correct” answer but to learn how to ask questions, investigate, debate, and persuade. As Munger notes, John Stuart Mill wrote about the danger of excluding “wrong” answers from discussions. Munger quotes Mill’s classic explanation:

[The] peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

When professors treat students with whom they agree as if they have nothing left to learn, those students are left without the critical skills that are necessary for future learning—and future teaching, should they wish to impart their knowledge upon others. In On Liberty, Mill speaks to that, too:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.

This is why, as FIRE President Greg Lukianoff wrote in Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, “A good education ought to teach citizens to actively seek out the opinions of intelligent people with whom they disagree.” To fail in this respect “robs people of the intellectual growth that comes from subjecting one’s own ideas to challenges” and “can lead to a runaway process of group polarization, extremism, and groupthink.” Further, as Greg writes, “When higher education is failing to raise the standards for discussion, the state of dialogue in the nation as a whole is bound to suffer.”

For the political and democratic health of the nation, then, it is essential that professors vigorously challenge all of their students, whether they agree with those students’ viewpoints or not. Institutions of higher education that seek to truly prepare their students for the world outside the university must heed Munger’s warning. Until they do, students should seek environments where they will confront new ideas and be encouraged to defend their viewpoints.

Munger’s column is well worth reading in full and can be found on the Pope Center’s website.

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