Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and author of “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.”
Across the political spectrum, too many Americans have lost faith in college education. Liberals and conservatives have few talking points in common, but they have come to agree on this: Campuses have replaced teaching and learning with indoctrination and political posturing.
That should trouble us all. If U.S. higher education comes to be seen first and foremost as a political endeavor, the country as a whole will suffer.
When education is framed as necessarily partisan, only cynicism triumphs. And cynicism is what we see growing on the left and the right in the United States. In recent years, higher education has become a punching bag for “knowing cynics” — conservative and progressive — who seem to discount the very possibility of rigorous inquiry that proceeds without certainty of how things might come out.
Some on the left are confident they have discovered that education was always political and that the promise of social mobility has long been an illusion foisted on the poor to keep them in line. Some on the right are sure they have discovered that education is just a device to indoctrinate the young into the ways of radicalism popular among otherwise unproductive professors.
In both cases, however, these “discoveries” are at heart little more than the adoption of an attitude of cynicism — the price of admission to a desired group. Cynicism is a pose one takes on to win friends while giving up on influencing people. Cynics think they know enough to know that they have nothing more to learn; they purchase an air of sophistication by condescending to people still trying to broaden their thinking and sharpen their skills.
The cynical pose toward education isn’t based on facts. There is no evidence that recent graduates of colleges and universities are far more radical than those who preceded them, or that they have been indoctrinated into the political beliefs of their professors in significant numbers. The most popular majors at American universities — including computer science, business and communications — show no evidence of such indoctrination. Nor is there evidence that U.S. colleges are mostly turning out selfish, would-be masters of the universe whose creed is greed. On the contrary, volunteerism is robust on college campuses, as is participation in forms of engagement that build a healthier civil society.
When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, my parents, who didn’t attend college themselves, little understood what happened at institutions of higher education. But they nonetheless sacrificed a great deal so my brother and I could continue our educations after high school. They had faith that doing so would give us better chances in life. Have we reached an inflection point in this faith — a point at which higher education is no longer seen by most as a source of problem solving and opportunity creation, a vehicle for social mobility and a resource for personal thriving?
That possibility is nothing to be cynical about. The alternative to learning, to experimenting with other points of view and new domains of inquiry, is parochialism, what philosopher Richard Rorty labeled “self-protective knowingness about the present.” We already see this in very public refusals to listen to people with views different from one’s own, in the rejection of basic science, and in the petty nastiness that comes from the resentment that other people are learning something you don’t know.
Our colleges and universities thrive when they cultivate inquiry on the basis of a variety of points of view. Their combination of research and teaching still provides the most fertile soil for creating opportunities and solving urgent problems — from medicine and technology to public policy and the arts. This doesn’t mean higher ed is immune from critique; on the contrary, calls for expanded access for low-income families, greater intellectual diversity and enhanced freedom of expression are having positive effects. More of this is needed. We learn to improve through attentive criticism, not the cynical embrace of tribal partisanship.
The American pragmatists taught that the mission of philosophy was to help people construct a sense of who they are, what matters to them and what they hope to make of their lives. That’s also a central part of the mission of higher education. Yes, the process of questioning oneself and the world can be disturbing — whether one is on the left or the right. But this mission, whatever forms it takes, is ultimately not about constructing a partisan position; it’s about developing self-awareness, subtlety of thought and openness to the possibility of learning from others.
The cynical dismissal of that mission, from liberals and conservatives alike, is dangerous at a time when we need adventurous, rigorous inquiry more than ever.