In the marketplace of ideas, mergers can amplify impact. Soon after political scientist Charles Murray and professor Allison Stanger were physically attacked by students and outside agitators at Middlebury College in March 2017, two eminent and politically-divergent academics came together to offer an inspiring statement on academic principles.
Conservative Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University teamed up with self-described “radical Democrat” Cornel West, Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy in the Divinity School and the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University. Together they wrote the statement, “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression.”
The statement is a clarion call for those who support constructive disagreement, particularly students and professors who have made the university system their home. It reads, in part:
All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs.
It is all-too-common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities. Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions; or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded from campus or, if they have already been invited, disinvited. Sometimes students and faculty members turn their backs on speakers whose opinions they don’t like or simply walk out and refuse to listen to those whose convictions offend their values. Of course, the right to peacefully protest, including on campuses, is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, each of us should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?
If more within the university system were to value and seek out viewpoint diversity, our universities would be healthier and more exciting places to live and work. As Professors George and West note, such an ethos “protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.”
Thousands of professors, students, alumni, and administrators endorsed the statement online. What elevated Professors George and West above other highly-qualified nominees for the HxA Open Mind Leadership Award was their proactive and explicit commitment to model viewpoint diversity. Longtime personal friends, they co-taught courses when West was a professor at Princeton, and they have spoken at a variety of campus conferences and other events about establishing a standard for promoting open inquiry and constructive disagreement to be emulated across the country. To wit, here is video of their shared talk at the U.S. Air Force’s 2018 National Character & Leadership Symposium:
As leaders in scholarship and now of the rapidly growing movement to advance viewpoint diversity and reform American higher education, Professors George and West truly deserve to share the HxA Open Mind Leadership Award, given to those who have most effectively championed the principles of viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement in the academy.