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October 27, 2023+John Tomasi
+Campus Climate+Viewpoint Diversity+Academic Careers

Intellectual Humility and the Search for Truth

Excerpts from John Tomasi’s comments delivered at Universidad de Navarra in Madrid, Spain, as part of International Reputation Week. Edited for length and clarity.

In many countries, the reputation of universities is suffering. This summer, there was a Gallup poll that showed that Americans’ confidence in higher education has collapsed over the past 20 years.

The headline numbers: in 2015, only 57% of Americans had a positive attitude towards universities. That dropped to half. Now only 36% of the people in the United States who were polled have a positive perception of universities. The numbers are actually worse than that: if you ask Republicans – half the country – only 19% have a positive idea about universities. So there's a crisis in confidence, a collapse in the reputation of universities in the United States.

And yet, while there was this collapse of reputation, people are still eager to get their children into the very top schools. So they compete. People do all kinds of things to send their children to institutions that they don't like, they don't trust, and they don't respect. It's a bad situation in a democracy, or in any society. Why has this happened?

I think there are a combination of factors. Grade inflation, which hurts reputation, is a major issue. So is the spiraling cost of education. I will focus on yet another reason: rising intolerance. Universities, which are supposed to be special places for the discussion of ideas, have become increasingly intolerant places. Cancel culture, which has become part of our wider culture, started in the universities. Many of the reasons why people pursue cancel culture, and shout people down or deplatform other people, come from ideas born within universities.

Universities seem to have lost their way. They seem to be uncertain themselves about what their values truly are. College presidents often give speeches about what they stand for, without expressing any clarity of purpose and mission. Instead, it tends to be a word salad.

I find it helpful to consider an ideal of a university: Plato’s Academy, an idea some 2,000 years old. In this ideal, it's significant that the academy was situated in a grove of trees on a hill, outside the polis. So the university is metaphorically situated away from the city, and away from the ordinary run of politics. In politics, people use speech for all kinds of reasons: to deceive people, to get them angry, to rally them to one cause or against other causes. But in the universities, we use speech in a more disciplined way, within disciplines that direct us towards truth.

The academy is also away from the oikos: the household, and more generally, the material stuff of the world. The academy is meant to be separate from the day-to-day questions about buying and selling, about making money or not making money.

And so the university is to be a very special place. A very strange place. A place deserving, perhaps, of special esteem and respect, because it is separated from the material conditions of our ordinary, everyday existence. We will live the rest of our lives within the polis and the oikos, but the university is ideally a place where people can interact on a different plane. It’s a non-material plane, a non-manipulative plane, a plane of common ground and differentiation from the rest of one's life. It's a place you go – most people just for a little while – to do a special thing. (There are some strange creatures who spend their whole lives in universities, like me, but for everyone it's meant to be this special place.)

"That means that the burden is on us. We need to convince people of what the ideal of a university should be."

This idea of a separate university is confronting challengers from the Left and from the Right.

From the Left, there's a challenge to the idea that the university should be separate from the polis. This is the idea that universities should be engaged in the project of social justice. Part of the reasoning there, of the people who encouraged cancel culture at universities, is that they see universities as having played an historic role of being engines of injustice. Because universities often replicate and reproduce the existing power structures, they think it's appropriate that the polis comes to the university. That it walks onto campus and says, ‘No more free ride for you people. We're bringing politics to your doorstep, like it or not.’

From the Right, this ideal is criticized on ground of oikos, challenging the economic value, or the economic rationality, of the university system. How can it make sense economically, from this perspective, for universities to charge young people and their families $80,000, pera year for four years? How can it possibly make sense, especially when almost half of people in the US who start at university don’t finish, which is a disaster for them? So these critics say the university is not just a place to go have this special experience. It’s a place to go learn how to get a job, or the degree that will get you the job.

We often talk about the telos of the university, meaning the end or the aim. My friend Jonathan Haidt was the co-founder of Heterodox Academy and is now the board chair. He has argued that every university has to choose: you can only have one highest purpose, because things will happen on campus that force you to choose. Jon said every university can make its highest mission either the pursuit of truth, or something like social justice. And we could add a third thing that I mentioned; perhaps the purpose of the university is to help students get good jobs to make a lot of money.

I would ask, what might humility tell us about that problem, this problem? Each of us is limited and biased in our perceptions. Who gets to decide what the appropriate telos of the university is? Humility would tell us, I think, that none of us gets to declare an answer to that question. I tried to explain sympathetically, each of those three rationales, why reasonable people could be drawn to any one of them. And humility would say to us, that it's not just a matter for us to sit here, the professors or the administrators of universities, and to declare which one they think is the most important one.

Ultimately, it's the stakeholders who get to decide what universities are for. They are the ones – the parents, the prospective students, our fellow citizens who are paying taxes for universities – who generate the reputation that universities have within society. Should I send my children there? Should I vote for more money for these universities? They're the ones who did make those decisions.

That means that the burden is on us. We need to convince people of what the ideal of a university should be. Our job is, with humility, to try to sympathetically see why people have these different views, and then attempt to develop our own view and to present that to our fellow citizens to change the way they evaluate universities, but also to change universities. So that universities can be valued highly by people again, and be worthy of admiration and respect.

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