The Crisis of Discourse: Solutions from an Educator

Higher education has a problem; it is becoming ideologically homogeneous. Universities have long been established as incubators of progress and the resulting ideological tilt has been accepted as innate. However, recently this progressive tilt has given way to dominance. Whereas speech was previously only stifled by socially enforced censorship, now students face institutional pressure.

Pete Peterson, the dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, is acutely aware of this problem and he has a diagnosis: “It’s just a power dynamic.” On college campuses, students, faculty, and professors contribute to a climate in which disagreement with the status quo is discouraged. Although academia is the most clearly afflicted, the greatest cause of concern is the impeded intellectual development of students. Fundamentally, this is not an issue of imbalance in the number of conservative and liberal students, but of the degradation of higher education. In fact, Peterson believes this has nothing to do with partisanship: “you could flip the tables and you would have the same issue.” How then do you support a minority when the influence of the majority seems so pervasive?

For Peterson, the answer is twofold: promote humility and encourage conservatism in academia. That first part tends to upset people – it is hard to argue from a position of moral and intellectual superiority while admitting your limitations. But a willingness to hear contrasting ideas, and to dignify them with thoughtful consideration, is exactly what higher education is lacking. Eradicating the dismissiveness on both sides is paramount. For this reason, Peterson encourages conservatives to pursue careers in academia so as to expose students to a broader spectrum of ideas. Students who never have their beliefs challenged will inevitably become entrenched in their ideology as their peers and educators affirm their convictions. The presence of right-leaning professors empowers conservative students to express their ideas inside the classroom, increasing viewpoint diversity and furthering the intellectual development of students.

As a dean, Pete Peterson can directly implement his educational theory. His goal is straightforward: “As the leader of an institution I want people to know what they think and why they think, but I also want them to understand why another person thinks differently.” Peterson hopes to engender empathy in his students. While a student might not agree with the writings of Marx or Adam Smith, the ability to recognize why people are persuaded by great thinkers is essential to understanding how our society functions.

However, such abstract ideas, although touted by most educators, are difficult to enact. When the entire system feels left-leaning it can be tempting to preserve conservatism in a few universities, pitting echo chamber against echo chamber. But according to Peterson, higher education should not be used to create partisan warriors and force students further to ideological extremes. The curriculum of Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy is partially based in the canon of Western Civilization because Peterson believes that “Western Civilization is actually a collision of major ideas… and you have to put them in argument with each other.” Educators will always control the bias with which they teach, but a curriculum based in the comparison of ideas defers to students the authority to determine truth. Forcing students to make their own evaluations is the only way to encourage free thinking in education.

This is the fundamental reason discourse is necessary; it is the marketplace in which superior ideas can prevail. Hence, Peterson insists that institutions trust in the mechanism of discourse so that such ideas can percolate among students. However, discourse alone is useless if it is not accompanied by humility and empathy. Effective implementation in higher education rests on the ability of students to critically assess differing viewpoints. Allowing a majority to squelch speech – unintentionally or intentionally – is detrimental to the intellectual growth of students. Peterson’s vision will not be realized so long as the validity of an idea is determined by the ideological persuasion of its purveyor. This is why is we must listen. This is why we must think.

This is why we seek truth through discourse.

By: Micha Balourdas

Class of 2021

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