We Talk a Lot About a Marketplace of Ideas. It’d Be Nice If We Actually Had One.

Two of my Media Law & Ethics students, Daryl Batt (left) and Randy Paulson, work through the issues in a classroom discussion on whether the election of Donald Trump as president signals a shift in American democratic values.

We talked in my Media Law & Ethics course today about higher education serving as one of the ‘institutional filters’ that can blunt the impact of a demagogue such as Donald Trump, while political and economic stresses are reducing that cultural institution’s ability to serve as a filter. This is happening for two reasons:

  • Higher education is expensive and out of reach or economically stressful for many students — so much so that students are more interested in pursuing careers than in having the intellectually transformational experience that higher education should be. We can talk about philosophy and history and literature, but what’s really important is getting a job.
  • At the same time, higher education’s intellectual content is dismissed by demagogues and their allies as ‘liberal propaganda’ that can and should be ignored if one is in disagreement with the professor, the curriculum or the majority views of the institution. Don’t argue back, the thinking goes: Just keep your head down, pass the class, and get out of there. (A parent of a student told me years ago at orientation the ‘liberal professors’ — including me, presumably — weren’t going to get into his daughter’s head; he seemed proud at graduation 4 years later that she hadn’t changed her mind on anything.)

Wesleyan University president Michael Roth argues that the values of liberal education now are more in need than ever and that universities and colleges should continue to push the edge of the envelope, not to indoctrinate or offend, but to encourage what our system of higher education — and, indeed, our free-speech tradition should promote: Civil argument, rational debate and hearing each other’s perspectives.

‘A liberal education includes deepening one’s ability to learn from people with whom one doesn’t agree, but the politics of resentment sweeping across many countries substitutes demonization for curiosity,’ Roth writes. ‘Writing people off with whom one disagrees will always be easier than listening carefully to their arguments. Without tolerance and open-mindedness, inquiry is just a path to self-congratulation at best, violent scapegoating at worst.’

Why aren’t students willing to disagree or debate in class with ‘pointy headed academics’? From my perch at the front the classroom, it’s often disheartening to look on a sea of faces, many of them belonging to people who likely passionately dispute the things I say, and to hear nothing from them. What can we — all of us — do to encourage a ‘marketplace of ideas’ that is a fact, not just a theory presented in Media Law & Ethics?

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