The Keys to Our Future

Posted on July 3, 2017

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I am going to write here as an educator, not a capitalist, socialist, entrepreneur, one percenter, a member of the silent majority or rioting loudly in the streets exercising my First Amendment rights. That Amendment reads, by the way, just in case you don’t have it handy, when you’re trashing the campus: It “prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, [or] interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.”

Protest riots in the streets to prevent someone you don’t like from speaking is not covered by the Amendment. But, I digress.

As an educator, I feel somewhat responsible for the behavior of my students and my students’ parents, and, as an old educator, even for my students’ grandparents, or those of my generation. Where did we go wrong?

A short time ago I read an excerpt of a speech made by another educator, John Etchemendy, former provost at Stanford University.

“Over the years,” Etchemendy, a philosopher by trade, observed, “I have watched a growing intolerance at universities in this country—not intolerance along racial or ethnic or gender lines—there, we have made laudable progress. Rather, a kind of intellectual intolerance, a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for….”

Etchemendy continued “the university is not a megaphone to amplify this or that political view and when it does it violates a core mission. Universities must remain open forums for contentious debate, and they cannot do so while officially espousing one side of that debate.

“But we must do more. We need to encourage real diversity of thought in the professoriate, and that will be even harder to achieve. It is hard for anyone to acknowledge high quality work when that work is at odds, perhaps opposed, to one’s own deeply held beliefs. But we all need worthy opponents to challenge us in our search for truth. It is absolutely essential to the quality of our enterprise.” (WSJ, last week of February, 2017)

My tribe–and I was in the “professoriate” for half a century–tends to be, remarkably in my estimation, just as Etchemendy describes us: intellectually intolerant and politically one-sided just for starters. And, even more damning, we recruit our students to our side from the very stage—our lecterns—where we should be seeking the truth, not announcing with dogmatic inflexibility that we know it to be such and such, whether you are a Marxist of the Bernie Sanders persuasion, or a conservative ideologue in the camp of the Right. And that example is just from politics. It covers a wide spectrum of the human experience that today divides us into warring camps with no middle ground. And it usually starts with the education of our youth.

The professoriate advocates their position with a zeal that brooks little or no questioning of their mandate and their version of the truth. We hold forth from the lectern as if it was a pulpit and wax on about the environment, the races, immigration, sexism, abortion, and dozens of other hot button issues with great authority, even if we are teaching math, or chemistry, or marketing.

That’s not your job. As Echevemendy suggests “search for the truth” and “encourage real diversity of thought.” The truth can be slippery. Pontius Pilate, when faced with the Jewish hotheads to crucify Jesus, and there was no evidence to convict him, threw his hands up (or rather washed them) and asked “what is truth?”

What is it we are about? Let me suggest one way we can search for it right here in T-town, with the great resource that is the university, and commemorate a signal moment in the history of humankind. This year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his ninety-five theses kicking off the Protestant Reformation.

A major symposium is already in the making. Put up some big questions to answer and open the debate.

Is religion important?

Why do we have separation of church and state?

Are secular principles (think of everything from Greek philosophers to Marxists to the LGBTQ community) as important as religious/Christian principles in determining what is good and worthwhile in our nation?

You all can think of many others. Make this a real forum for debate–open, frank, honest and informed–and, just as important, civil and respectful.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday March 5, 2017 as A Growing Intellectual Intolerance