Via Savage Minds, I recently came across an interesting discussion of contentious ideas and the role of colleges and universities in entertaining them. The issue at hand is whether colleges and universities ought to entertain presentations by people like Charles Murray, specifically to discuss ideas such as that found in his influential yet widely criticized book The Bell Curve. In the words of Jonathan Marks,
It’s like inviting a creationist or an inventor of a perpetual motion machine. The university should not be a censor, but it sure as hell is a gatekeeper. At this point, sometimes [proponents of speakers like Murray] go all radical epistemological relativist and and say that all ideas deserve a hearing. But all ideas don’t deserve a hearing. The universe of things that do get discussed and debated on college campuses is rather small in proportion to the ideas that people have debated over the years. Should we stone witches? No. Might the speed of light be 140,000 miles per second, rather than 186,000? No. Might the universe just be made up of earth, air, water, and fire? No. Might Africans just be genetically stupid? Might people who want to debate this point have their fundamental civic morality called into question instead?
Without weighing in on the specifics of Charles Murray as a scholar or thinker (although I spent a week in summer 2004 going through The Mismeasure of Man and was fairly transfixed), I’d like to redirect this argument just a bit. The actually interesting question is not whether or not the ideas in The Bell Curve are discredited or not, but what is the role of the university in entertaining even discredited ideas in a public forum. In my view there is a strong pedagogical argument that universities must entertain these kinds of contentious arguments, even if they involve ideas that are discredited, or known to be false.
I will make this argument through example. I regularly teach a course on Southeast Asian Politics (syllabus [PDF]). We always spend at least one class on the so-called “Asian Values debate,” which I consider to be dead debate because the premise of Asian Values is itself false and has long been known to be so. So why teach a “dead debate?” Because this debate exists independently of me teaching about it, and students live in a world where they are shaped by those ideas even if they are unaware of them.
This is always best illustrated by the case of Thailand and so-called “Thai-style democracy.” I always have at least one student—never a student who is actually from Thailand or of Thai heritage—who argues that “the Thais” are culturally predisposed to deference, collectivism, and subordination to royal authority. They almost never have a language for describing this, and are unaware of what holding such a view entails about the people to whom it is applied. By providing them with the argument about Asian Values, relating it to this specific instance of a belief that they hold about Thailand, I render their views visible. This gives them the tools that they need to be critical of those beliefs.
It would not make sense for me to hold that the Asian Values debate is dead (and Orientalist, and actually self-contradictory…), therefore I need not teach it, because refusing to teach it allows the ideas to persist unquestioned. It is likewise silly to hold that just because I’ve done the work of demolishing the Asian Values myth in 2001, I don’t have to do so in 2002, and 2003, and so on to 2017. Yes, doing so can feel stale and tiresome, but my classes continually renew themselves with new 18-year olds who need to be taught the things that 22-year olds already know. Doing this work year after year comes with the territory; how could it be otherwise? So too with the university writ large. There is a reason why the ideas in The Bell Curve continue to hold such influence for so many people, and that very reason provides the pedagogical foundation for universities to encourage debate around it.
So no, we should not stone witches—but if witch stoning were a commonly held normative belief it would warrant discussion and teaching. “Might the speed of light be 140,000 miles per second, rather than 186,000?” No, but we know that because we can reason it, and the purpose of the university is to teach students how to reason that way themselves as well. We don’t debate phlogiston anymore, but it remains essential to training in the philosophy of science because understanding what work the concept did helps us to understand how we construct arguments about how the universe works.
One position is that if universities do not acknowledge contentious or unpopular or incorrect ideas, they will disappear or remain marginal because they have not been given the legitimacy of a public hearing. Another position is that giving them a public hearing subjects them to critical scrutiny and argument. My position is the latter. The really dangerous and powerful idea is the one that cannot be taught or acknowledged in public.