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The Limits of Persuasion in a Polarized Academy

By Joshua Dunn

This review, which will appear in the forthcoming fall 2021 issue of Academe, has been published online along with other preview material.

Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education by Jonathan Marks. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021.

Jonathan Marks has written an eminently reasonable defense of the university and liberal education. In Let's Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education, he argues that the academy can still be a place where students, and faculty, learn to practice deliberative virtues rather than become merely “skilled arguers” or, even worse, shrill screamers attacking those who might dissent from campus orthodoxy.

One immediate question is, Who is the “us” in “let’s”? Initially it seems to be conservatives like himself—Marks, a political theorist at Ursinus College, is a self-avowed intellectual descendant of Leo Strauss—who might be tempted to abandon higher education, or burn it down, as a hopelessly corrupt sector committed not to the pursuit of truth but to left-wing politics. However, he also clearly wants to appeal to liberal faculty members, who constitute the overwhelming majority of today’s professoriate, to not trade their vocation for a mess of ideological porridge. Thus, he wants to convince conservatives that the university isn’t as bad as they imagine and liberals that it might be worse than they admit.

To make his case, Marks first establishes what he means by reasonable. Following John Locke, Marks describes reasonableness as a disposition to weigh and balance arguments in favor of different positions and then follow the stronger one even if it conflicts with your previously held view. Marks knows that such a disposition is difficult to develop and perhaps even more difficult to maintain. However, he argues that developing reasonableness should be the true goal of liberal education in part because it is essential for citizens in a liberal democracy. The rest of his book is largely devoted to arguing that this kind of education is still possible, even though some people have lost faith in colleges and universities.

Ultimately, I expect Marks’s case, despite its reasonableness, will not persuade many, partly because of the evidence he offers. In chapter 2, he discusses several ways that the university undermines its mission in areas ranging from curriculum to concerns about microaggressions to its treatment of education as a form of exorcism. On the curriculum, Marks notes that the emphasis on diversification can narrow rather than broaden what gets taught. He argues that focusing on contemporary authors who address solely contemporary issues, as many courses do, while purging syllabi of dead, white, European males might limit the exposure of students to different ways of seeing the world. The purges sometimes exclude people like Augustine or the Old and New Testament authors, who were neither white nor European. With respect to microaggressions, Marks recapitulates the evidence not only that the concept itself is quite slippery—there is no clear definition of a microaggression—but also that programs emphasizing them are harmful and counterproductive. The response, he claims, of these programs’ advocates is to say that we must defer to the “lived experience of marginalized groups” regardless of what the evidence shows. Marks considers this the exact opposite of the kind of reasonable discussion that he thinks should be at the center of education. Those, he says, “who insist on microaggression programs, even when confronted with reasons to think such programs might hurt those they are designed to help, propose that marginalized students mustn’t be taught to question their subjective experiences,” supporting a position that, “apart from humiliating everyone involved, is antithetical to the mission of the university.”

Marks also laments that some view education as a form of “left political activism” involving exorcism from campuses of unpleasant prejudices. He does not, of course, defend these prejudices but sees a dangerous trend when colleges cancel classes or engage in “struggle sessions”—a term associated with the public humiliation practices of the Communist Party of China—in response to alleged acts of insensitivity. Some of these acts end up being exaggerations or hoaxes. Regardless, the responses by administrators then “empower anyone who cares to shut down a campus” to attempt to do so. Additionally, Marks points out that if you treat education as purely about politics and power, without any independent ground of reason, you risk having politicians say that since the enterprise is all about politics and power there is nothing wrong with their intervening and imposing their preferred position in place of yours.

Marks’s message to conservatives after providing this list of grievances is that “hopelessness is unwarranted.” Even at Claremont McKenna College, “the seat of some of the nastier student demonstrations of the recent past,” there is the Salvatori Center, which “examines timeless truths in an effort to understand our civic condition,” and other institutions have similar programs. Many conservatives will likely not be reassured. After all, the Salvatori Center’s existence was apparently no deterrent to unruly student protests in 2017, when students blocked a speech by Heather Mac Donald, author of The War on Cops and a critic of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Similarly, in chapter 4, which focuses on “shaping reasonable students,” Marks admits that surveys of students do give reason for worry. In 2018, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that 57 percent of students think that universities should be able to censor viewpoints that are hurtful or offensive. However, he reports, a “healthy majority,” 75 percent, also say they believe that students should have a right to free speech on campus even if their speech “offends others.” This could be cause for optimism but, as FIRE notes in its analysis, the survey shows that students have only a “surface-level understanding” of freedom of speech and association. The closer you get to specific events, the more intolerant students become. Of course, even if 75 percent of students truly are committed to free expression, that still might not capture the influence on campuses of the 25 percent who are openly hostile to speech they deem offensive. After all, a strongly motivated minority who are willing to denounce others as bigots can induce self-censorship in a majority that would prefer not to be publicly shamed and just want to get a degree without their reputations’ being slandered. Contrary to popular descriptions of college students as being uniquely sensitive “snowflakes,” in research with my University of Colorado at Colorado Springs colleague Dick Carpenter, a professor of educational leadership, I found that college students and members of the public have similarly low levels of support for controversial speech. However, the college environment provides more opportunities for those who want to attack controversial speakers to do so.

There are a few other general reasons that Marks is unlikely to persuade many. Some would simply reject his description of what it means to be reasonable. Zealots, of course, think that it is perfectly reasonable to not reason with those with whom they disagree. After all, they believe that they have already considered the other side and found it wanting, or evil, and unworthy of being acknowledged except to be vilified or dismissed. A related reason is that politics—unlike economics, which shows that mutual gains can be made from trade—is more of a zero-sum game for many. A win for one side means a loss for the other, and most would prefer not to lose. What is the point of nuanced discussion if the other side still wins? Unfortunately, we seem more and more to be implicitly treating politics like Carl Schmitt, the infamous Nazi legal theorist, who distilled politics into the friend-enemy distinction. It doesn’t take a PhD in political philosophy to know that this view of politics is inherently incompatible with liberalism. Marks’s last chapter on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel unintentionally reinforces this pessimistic conclusion. Using their own words, Marks documents how the BDS movement’s leaders confess that they are not interested in dialogue on Israel but simply want its defeat. In response, some faculty members such as Jeffrey Kopstein, the former director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, offered “dozens and dozens of courses” designed to teach students about the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict rather than just defending Israel. Kopstein’s hope after this lengthy effort was that there would be “a large cohort of students” who could help the campus rise above “screaming matches.” Similarly, Marks organized a course with a colleague more critical of Israel than he. They dutifully selected only readings that they could convince the other were worth including to keep the class “free of political bias.” Students then had to “look at the same evidence and together hold each other’s arguments up to scrutiny.” While I have no doubt that the students who took these courses benefited from the experience, one wonders how it could compare to the frisson of Manichean combat Marks has so diligently documented and flagged as a threat to liberal education.

In short, Let’s Be Reasonable should be read by all those, on the left and right, who believe that liberal education is worth saving. You would be hard pressed to find a more engaging defense of the importance and potential of the university. It seems reasonable to worry, however, that the audience for such a defense is growing smaller.

Joshua Dunn is professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He is coauthor, with Jon Shields, of Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University. His email address is jdunn@uccs.edu.

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