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THE PROBLEM

To make headway on solving the world’s most complex problems, scholars and policy makers must deploy the best ideas. This typically requires consulting a wide range of perspectives.

While a community of inquiry defined by intellectual humility, curiosity, empathy, and trust may hold many beliefs in common, few ideas will be beyond discussion, revision, or good-faith debate.

The surest sign of an unhealthy scholarly culture is the presence of orthodoxy. Orthodoxies are most readily apparent when people fear shame, ostracism, or any other form of social or professional retaliation for questioning or challenging a commonly held idea.

The best way to defend against orthodoxies — or to neutralize them — is to foster commitment to open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement.

When these elements are missing, orthodoxies can take root and thrive.

Open Inquiry

Open Inquiry is the ability to ask questions and share ideas without risk of censure.

In an environment that is insufficiently open, facts can be corrupted or suppressed for the benefit of special interests. Important innovations can be set back or outright snuffed out. Avoidable problems can fester and spread. Personal and intellectual growth can be stunted.

Open Inquiry is Threatened on Several Fronts

  • Across the political spectrum there are people who make it their business to surveille and mob scholars who threaten their preferred narratives.
  • Expanding bureaucracies at many colleges and universities subject ever more of campus life to administrative oversight — and encourage people to resolve disputes through reporting, investigations and academic reprisals rather than good-faith debate and discussion.
  • Concerns about placating donors, ensuring high enrollments or positive course evaluations can distort research and pedagogy — especially for the growing numbers of contingent faculty whose careers and livelihoods can be threatened by a single upset student, donor or colleague.
  • And, of course, many fear losing the esteem of, or being ostracized by, one’s peers for saying the “wrong” thing (a risk which is more pronounced in highly-homogenous environments). Even in the absence of formal sanctions, social and professional isolation can make academic life extremely difficult and unpleasant — and many reasonably prefer to self-censor rather than risk it. This is a significant concern among students, faculty, and administrators.

Viewpoint Diversity

Viewpoint diversity occurs when members of a group or community approach problems or questions from a range of perspectives.

Institutions of higher learning face several interrelated viewpoint diversity deficits including:

  • Racial/Ethnic
  • Socioeconomic
  • Geographical
  • Religious
  • Political

And in many fields, Gender.

When environments lack sufficient viewpoint diversity, problematic assumptions can go unchallenged, promising ideas and methods can go underexplored, and it can be difficult to effectively understand or engage with others who have different backgrounds, priors and commitments.

For instance, to the extent that institutions of higher learning lack viewpoint diversity (and are thus not representative of the broader societies in which they are embedded), scholars may struggle  to communicate the value and relevance of their work to people outside the academy in an accessible and compelling way. Well-intentioned social programs can fail in their stated aims — or even cause harm — when the people designing policies are too far removed from the populations their interventions are intended to serve. Meanwhile, young people from underrepresented groups may come to feel as though they don’t belong in the academy — and decline to apply to college, drop out midway through, or pursue non-academic paths if they push through to graduation.

In short, we would have reasons to recruit and retain a more diverse pool of faculty, staff and students even if the lack of viewpoint diversity was purely the result of differences in interests and priorities among members of various groups. However, we know that many disparities are also — at least in part — the result of a hostile atmosphere, discrimination, a lack of access or institutional dynamics that tend to privilege certain groups for reasons other than the quality of their research or ideas. It seems important to rectify these imbalances for moral as well as practical reasons.

Constructive Disagreement

Constructive Disagreement occurs when people who don’t see eye-to-eye are committed to exploring an issue together, alive to their own fallibility and the limits of their knowledge — and open to learning something from others who see things differently than they do.

When people lack the skill or the will to disagree constructively, disputes about theories, methods, data, analysis,or solutions can take on the character of zero-sum power struggles rather than opportunities for mutual growth and discovery. People become more polarized and closed-minded. They grow less likely to share and cooperate, and more likely to withhold key information, or engage in bad-faith for competitive advantage. Mistakes and failures are more likely to be weaponized against scholars rather than being understood as an unavoidable part of the iterative process of exploration, trial, error, discovery and revision that lies at the core of the scientific method. People grow less likely to take risks or tolerate uncertainty. Under these circumstances, increased diversity can become a liability — a source of additional paranoia and strife — rather than an asset.

Colleges and universities face a number of challenges with respect to constructive disagreement:

  • Many students, faculty and staff have insufficient training in how to constructively engage across difference — especially as it relates to fundamental ideological commitments.
  • However, constructive disagreement cannot simply be taught from the armchair: it is a skill people refine through real-world engagement. In many contexts this is difficult due to the aforementioned demographic and ideological distortions within institutions of higher education. Many students lack opportunities to meaningfully and charitably engage with underrepresented perspectives in the curriculum. Many professors who are concerned about this problem don’t know where or how to begin introducing missing perspectives, as they often do not have a solid foundation in them either.
  • In many academic contexts, from class discussions to academic research, there are apparent incentives towards competition which can be counterproductive to learning and growth. It often seems easier to build a reputation by attacking others — to elevate oneself at the expense of others — than to seek opportunities for mutual growth and collaborative discovery among people who seem to be on opposite sides of an issue.
  • The background political culture in the contemporary United States is highly polarized and increasingly toxic. In such an environment, differences of opinion are more likely to be attributed to moral or intellectual defects in one’s interlocutors. People are easily branded as sellouts or traitors for collaborating with “the enemy” — or providing ammunition for the “enemy” by defying the consensus of their tribe.

 

As citizens who are counting on students’ and researchers’ future contributions to our shared social, civic, moral, and scientific endeavors, we all suffer when orthodoxies distort and limit understanding of the social, aesthetic, and natural world — or when institutions of higher learning are unable to draw in perspectives from the whole of society. We need heterodox academies.

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