Why academia needs debate
In a recent essay, Don Moynihan regrets a tendency to ‘fetishize’ campus debate, arguing that this position misunderstands the value of debate within universities. Moynihan emphasizes that debate involves persuading audiences and defeating opponents, meaning that it has little pedagogical value. As conservatives call for greater debate on campuses, liberals have adopted similar arguments. Aside from Moynihan’s points, other liberals assert that research is a technical activity, debate having little relevance to it.
I agree that Oxford Union style debate has limited value, the method rewarding ostentation and dominance. In certain classrooms and research seminars, this ritual continues to be pervasive, reducing collaboration and being particularly unappealing to women. Yet this is something of a strawman, many defenders of debate having a different ideal in mind. Specifically, debate’s apologists tend to be concerned with campus monocultures, emphasizing the importance of atmospheres which are open to different positions. In an overlooked passage of On Liberty, Mill stressed this, calling for protection ‘against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose its own ideas as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.’ As liberals have dominated academia, liberal-conservative ratios in certain disciplines being over 30:1, many worry about threats to this ideal. Such pressures erode classroom experiences, making those with unorthodox views feel unwelcome, but also threaten research.
Ostensibly, debate plays little role in academic research; scholars seldom engage in Oxford Union style debates, even in overtly political subjects; rather, the emphasis is upon technical issues such as models and validity. Yet if one adopts a wider definition of debate, this position breaks down. As scholars have long known, values have a critical influence upon research output. This link exists in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), these disciplines being socially embedded, but has limits, reflecting the technical nature of these subjects. This relationship is stronger in the social sciences, being evident in multiple stages of research projects. The values of researchers have a critical influence upon topic selection. Certain topics appeal to people with certain values; if such people are absent from academia, certain areas will be under-researched. Moreover, the values of scholars have a critical role during the research process, even quantitative research. For example, the use of control variables can be highly political, topics such as the gender pay gap and socioeconomic outcomes of minorities being famous for this. Ultimately, decisions to include these variables are philosophical. If political balances are skewed, orthodoxies will tilt towards particular ideologies.
Admittedly, such influences are contingent. Academia also rewards the exploitation of gaps in fields, creating incentives to pursue unorthodox arguments. Certain fields lean in conservative directions. For example, work on the relationship between immigration and welfare state erosion discomforts liberals. Of course, empirical realities are also crucial. Yet in other fields, literatures arguably reflect ideological bias. In psychology, scholars have long recognized that the personalities of extreme right-wingers tend to be more authoritarian, consistent with the perceptions of laypeople. But despite the perception that extreme left-wingers also tend to be more authoritarian, researchers have been to slow to recognize this phenomenon, the record only being corrected recently. There is a similar deficit in research on populism. Though an impressive body of literature analyses the foundations of right-wing values, scholars concluding that cultural explanations are more significant than economic explanations, literature on left-wing values is comparatively underdeveloped. This may reflect discomfort that these values have social foundations, left-wingers preferring to think of such values as ‘reasonable’. The domination of liberals also limits contributions to public conversations. For example, British academics were overwhelmingly against Brexit (me included). This reflected undoubted disadvantages of Brexit, yet meant that advantages were underplayed. In a society in which a majority voted to leave the EU, academia should have better reflected public opinion.
These challenges are difficult to correct, feedback effects perpetuating them. To an unprecedented extent, education now predicts political attitudes. Given that education is the key product of universities, liberals will continue to dominate universities. Moreover, academia will continue to attract liberals. In a study of liberal domination of American academia, Gross argues that this reflects perceptions of the sector; liberals consider academia a suitable profession, conservatives viewing it with suspicion. This results from historic conditions in American universities; the professoriate was defined as an occupation which stood against religious and political censorship.
There are problems with this argument, the liberal profile of academia also being associated with occupational dislike of hierarchy, yet it underscores the need for open cultures within classrooms. Oxford Union style debate may have dubious pedagogical value, but students are sensitive to the kind of views which are welcome within academia. Aside from arguments about not coddling students – which are crucial, but I will not elaborate here - open classroom cultures thus guarantee the integrity of future research. This is not just a question of liberals against conservatives. In recent years, critics of Israel and second-wave feminists have endured colder atmospheres, both groups traditionally being part of the left.
Certain liberals continue to dispute these arguments. Moynihan emphasizes the threat of conservative legislation, Republican state governments supporting laws which encourage students to sue universities. Despite the risks of such legislation, I think that appeal to the external environment evades difficult questions about ingroups. As we have seen, liberals are the key ingroup within universities. Scholars recognize that ingroups are the level at which social pressures predominantly operates. Within ingroups, orthodoxies form, creating pressure to espouse these orthodoxies. Many of these pressures are tacit, being difficult to articulate. Such trends characterize all ingroups; why would academic liberals be different?
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