In his article, “Real Academic Diversity,” Gerald Alexander argues that the university is enriched by an expansion in viewpoint diversity, a more even spread of “the philosophical and political orientation of scholars.” While academic institutions across the country made great strides in increasing diversity of race and gender, they generally neglected – or outright opposed – combatting the homogeneity of intellectually liberal worldviews represented on American campuses. As Dunn and Shields note in Passing on the Right, this led to a scarcity of conservative voices within higher education, which is not just bad for conservatives. The fewer contenders there are in the arena of competing ideas, the less compelling are the ideas that survive it.
I throw in my hat with Alexander, but I would make a further qualification. Viewpoint diversity sharpens the respective disciplines in their pursuit of truth only insofar as these disciplines see the criticism of their detractors as legitimate. Legitimacy of criticism is hard to deny in scientific fields that rely on empirical data for their conclusions, and where all agree on a method. However, much scholarship necessarily takes place within a framework of convictions or “first principles,” which provide the foundation for all subsequent inquiry. These first principles cannot themselves be known empirically.
Our answers to the big questions of human existence, for example, depend largely on the first principles that we allow ourselves. Radical empericalism affords us with very little to work with and ends, as Pope Benedict XVI warned during his famous University of Regensburg lecture, with a radically reduced theory of human existence. A student of Aquinas, by contrast, is endowed with a wealth of first principles from which he derives a rich anthropology of man.
For this reason the recognition of first principles is the sine non qua of the intellectual life. The problem with Alexander’s thesis is that to promote viewpoint diversity in disciplines grounded in first principles, we must treat all convictions as equally valid, which is to say that we must treat all convictions as equally invalid. This claim is itself a first principle, but it is a bad one. We should not attempt to purge our institutions of any sort of convictional framework. Far from creating a more rigorous competition of ideas, this kind of diversity drains the intellectual space. Without shared substantive first principles, we are left with what G.K. Chesterton described as a “suicide of thought.”
One need not spend much time in the University to see the effects of this “suicide” on academia. Last year, I attended two seminars on free speech in the university. The same program sponsored both seminars, and they used the same foundational readings. Professors from reputable institutions facilitated the two discussions and each were attended by groups of about 20 students. The first seminar was hosted at a religious institution and was led by a professor who held religious convictions. The students who attended shared those convictions. A secular professor from a secular institution led the second, and most of the students in the room were not religious.
The first seminar began with a discussion about the current political climate on college campuses. We, like Alexander, observed the growing homogeneity of viewpoints. We discussed some of the effects of this on free speech: a growing intolerance of conservative voices and a growing impatience with research animated by religious conviction. Why is this a dangerous thing? John Stuart Mill offers us an answer in On Liberty. Mill discusses the importance of protecting minority perspectives, lest we forget that the majority is not an infallible authority. Someone in the group likened the idea of the search for truth to a contact sport. The truth is too important to be hampered by fears of offending your interlocutor.
But as one student noted, the truth should not be considered “offensive” at all. This student’s claim requires a conviction—and one I think necessary for the rejection of all forms of bigotry—that the truth is “one” and belongs without exception to the entire human race. To refuse to question the ideology of your interlocutor is ultimately offensive, as it implies that their human nature is so fundamentally different that you do not even hold truth in common, that you do not share the highest of human faculties: the capacity to reason. If we believe that truth is good, and good for everyone, then in its pursuit we should be unafraid of criticism and always open to refinement. In this we should be grateful for correction, and aware that we are pursuing a common goal.
John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration steered our conversation to the subject of human dignity. Locke posited dignity as a priori truth and demanded that it be treated as sacred. As a group of Christian believers who hold that man is made “very good” and “in the image of God,” this was an idea to which we could easily assent. Using dignity as our point of orientation, we argued about the sanctity of individual conscience, the prerogative of free choice despite its consequences, and the possibility of exceptions to this rule when the good of the many is at stake. Building on our convictions concerning absolute truth and the dignity of man, we had a discussion that was fruitful and edifying.
This stood in stark contrast to my experience at the second seminar. Here no first principles were allowed, excepting a rejection of all substantive first principles. G. K. Chesterton contrasted the older, Christian view of humility with the one my colleagues embraced: “The old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”
Without any value claims to appeal to, our discussion was barren and strange. There was no standard, no common goal around which we could orient our discussion. We could only talk past each other. And with no foundation to build on, what else could we do? Far from being deep and insightful, we devolved into a two and a half hour debate on whether or not watching pornography in the common space counts as free speech. As a student, I left more lost and confused than edified.
If the promotion of viewpoint diversity means promoting this kind of skepticism, then it is a grave threat to education. The advocate of viewpoint diversity may respond that we need to “open the minds of the youth,” that we must “shatter conventional frameworks.” While tearing down convictions is certainly fashionable, it is hardly an education. It is, rather, a kind of anti-education. In his Ethics, Aristotle defines education as instruction in how to distinguish between that which is worthy of praise, and that which is worthy of disdain. But it was just these kind of value judgments that we were asked to reject at the second seminar.
Christian colleges and universities, indeed any institution of education formed around a distinct set of first principles, should not shy away from the values that undergird their mission. Education requires an inheritance of shared essential truths to work from: a standard that provides the bounds of legitimacy and a test for the rigor of claims. “The acceptance of a fact as a fact is the starting point,” Aristotle writes.
For this reason, any institution that wishes to serve a purpose, if it is to be successful, must exercise some degree of exclusivity. C.S. Lewis articulates this idea more pointedly in his essay defending first principles, The Abolition of Man. “An open mind,” writes Lewis, “in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or of Practical Reason is idiocy.”
Viewpoint diversity, inasmuch as it disarms our students of first principles, renders their minds open only in the negative sense. Without a clear vision of “the Right and the Just,” they are not equipped to navigate the moral confusions that characterize our times. The University is obliged to prepare students for the world, not just the marketplace.
Such radical viewpoint diversity is not just bad for the student, it is bad for the Academy. While diversity may help promote intellectual rigor in the empirical disciplines, the empirical disciplines still need direction that only first principles provide. In his The Idea of the University, Karl Jaspers argues that the sciences must be directed by philosophy. While the empirical disciplines are of vital importance in man’s advancement towards truth, the empirical method does not contain its own meaning. Only convictions can “define the course and direction of scientific work, yet they are not themselves scientifically demonstrable.” The meaning of our activity “eludes all attempts at formulation,” writes Jaspers. “It becomes manifest in our innermost beliefs. Only the seriousness of our personal resolve can allow ideas to become effective in our own lives.”
Radical viewpoint diversity may serve us well in the sciences, because the first principles on which the methods of science depend are accepted across specialties and departments. The same is not true of the humanities. We could appeal to experience, but we have rejected any standard by which we could measure or rank those experiences. The problem is not that we are unreasonable, it is that we possess a myopic view of what reason can accept as true: deduction offers no remedy for our kind of disagreement. Without a common set of first principles, we become incoherent to one another, we can only talk past each other. It is of little surprise that our dialogue has been reduced to shouting matches, ad hominem attacks, and appeals to pity. Rhetoric, once an art founded in logic building upon first principles, has become a practice in weeping and gnashing of teeth.