|Viewpoint diversity at the Harkness table|
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation, those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.” John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 2
A great strength of the school where I teach is the racial and ethnic diversity of its student body. It's a strength that is cultivated by the admissions department, and rightly celebrated and boasted about in our promotional literature. Less attention is paid to diversity of viewpoint.
In my politics class, I am lucky if I have one student out of 12 who identifies as conservative, and most of them are quick to say that they are only conservative on economic issues. I can only recall one outspoken cultural conservative in recent years and she paid a social price for voicing her opinion—a cost few adolescents are willing to bear. Her experience illustrates why conservatives on campus, among both students and faculty, tend to keep their opinions to themselves.
But their silence shrinks the political discourse on campus and therefore diminishes the political education that our students are getting; it doesn’t prepare them for the political milieu of the country they live in. The American electorate does not resemble the political climate in schools like Exeter. And the stifling of dissent and the establishment of ideological monocultures contribute to the nation’s political polarization, which threatens the very survival of democracy.
Students who adhere to a group’s majority viewpoint rarely have to defend their position. Meanwhile, dissenters go underground with like-minded peers into an echo-chamber within an echo-chamber. Or they might rebel. The LA Times tells the story of Trump aide Stephen Miller, who rebelled against what he saw as a “campus indoctrination machine” at Samohi High School in “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica.” In doing so, he mastered the tactics of lib-baiting that catapult him to prominence as a Trump troll. Samohi classmate Kesha Ram, a Vermont state representative who campaigned for Bernie Sanders in 2020, told the Times “I think it helped him to be a stronger advocate for his position to go to a high school like ours.”
Exeter has not produced any Stephen Millers as far as I know, but I’ve often thought that our outspoken conservative students, who have to frequently explain their position, become much better at defending their ideas and values than liberal students do. It’s almost like we've created a boot camp for conservatives.
It’s impossible to know how many public schools have become liberal or conservative echo chambers. The New York Times reports that conservative Christian schools are experiencing an enrollment boom as parents pull their children out of schools they perceive as engaging in left-wing indoctrination. Meanwhile, parents told Times reporter Michael Powell that elite private schools are imposing a “suffocating and destructive” anti-racist and diversity “groupthink” on their children. Critics perceive a similar environment at the nation’s elite colleges. Yale English Professor William Deresiewicz says that elite universities,
don’t have “different voices” on campus, as these institutions like to boast; you have different bodies, speaking with the same voice. That, by the way, is why liberal students (and liberals in general) are so bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to. That is also why it tends to be so easy for conservatives to goad them into incoherent anger.
This comment brought to mind Malcolm Nance’s cringe-inducing defense of critical race theory against Ben Shapiro’s scathing attack. Anyone looking for a persuasive defense of CRT would not find it here.
Nance’s performance suggests he agrees with the Williams College professor who denigrated “intellectual debate” because it “comes from a world in which white men dominated.” Of course the Bill Maher show is not the best place to work out our differences. Cable TV and social media have polarized the electorate to a point where democracy can’t seem to function. But if institutions of higher education also increase polarization, we are in deep trouble. Surely Williams College and Phillips Exeter Academy are places where intellectual deliberation (a word I prefer to “debate”) between people with different viewpoints can take place and where some common ground might be found.
To make this happen, institutions of higher education need to return to their core mission of pursuing truth and this requires making it safe to dissent from majority viewpoints within, of course, the bounds of civility (see note on Palfrey, below).
Not only does exposure to strong opposing arguments teach people to defend their views, it also fosters understanding, empathy and tolerance of fellow citizens who think differently while helping us to refine and improve our own thinking. On the other hand, research has shown that those who live and work among people who agree with them become more extreme in their views and less tolerant (Hess and McAvoy, 26).
Exeter’s dearth of conservative voices goes back as long as I’ve been there—24 years. But anti-racism threatens to silence another large group of voices and narrow the political discourse even further. Lots of people who tend to vote for Democrats and support most items on the liberal or even leftist agenda do not subscribe to the entire anti-racist/diversity orthodoxy. They may emphasize class over race, or have reservations about “identity politics” and the post-modernist theories that seem to be behind much of that orthodoxy.
This group spans a wide range of opinion on the left, ranging from moderate liberals to Jacobin-reading socialists, and includes people of all races and genders—like the 87 percent of Hispanic or Latino Americans who have heard about the new term “Latinx” but decline to use it. Or the 40 percent who say they are offended by it.
Conflicts among liberals in school environments are mostly hidden from public view. Michael Powell has had trouble getting teachers, professors, administrators and even parents to go on the record criticizing the anti-racist orthodoxy at elite schools and universities. A white mother of a private school student told Powell that speaking out was “laden with risk. ‘People and companies are petrified of being labeled racists,’ she said.” Parents are also loath to jeopardize their children’s position at selective schools.
If knowledge-producing institutions offer fewer opportunities for truth to collide with error, our view of reality will become hazier and our ability to solve or mitigate problems—including racism—will deteriorate.
The dynamics that reduce dissent on campus are mostly hidden because of a usually-appropriate desire to protect the privacy of students and employees. Political parties and the media are less constrained by privacy concerns, so the dynamics of epistemic closure are more apparent there. My next blog post will explore some of these dynamics, which may offer insights into what is happening in less-public venues.
NOTES AND QUOTES
(Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism)
William Deresiewicz, “On Political Correctness, Power, class, and the new campus religion,” The American Scholar, Nov. 2, 2021.
John Palfrey, Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education (2017). Former Phillips Andover Academy Principal Palfrey makes sensible suggestions for balancing the need to make institutions welcoming for people from diverse backgrounds with the values of free speech. .
Paula McAvoy and Diana Hess, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, (2015).
Hannah Natanson, “A white teacher taught white students about white privilege. It cost him his job.” Washington Post, Dec. 6, 2021. Though it ends with the firing of a liberal teacher from what seems to be a conservative echo-chamber, the beginning of this article reads like a case study in why it is important to provide viewpoint diversity in a high school. Conservative students said this about their experience in a classroom with Matthew Hawn, a teacher who exposed them to a liberal point of view:
“It made me think, from that point on, that I can change my mind on issues,” said Thomas, who is majoring in history at East Tennessee State University because Hawn’s class inspired a love for the subject.Sadly, Hawn was fired after being accused of imposing his political views on his students.
Before meeting Hawn, Thomas said, “I don’t know if I could have been the type of guy to listen to other people’s arguments, or see from their point of view.”
Ted Balaker, “The Unseen Side of ‘Cancel Culture,’” Persuasion, Dec 17, 2021. Filmmaker Ted Balaker writes that “the threat to free expression goes well beyond high-profile cancellations,’” and more often happens in subtle ways in which the diversity and anti-racist agenda stifles freedom of expression, if not of thought. He concludes:
Students tell me they engage in a kind of “pre-canceling,” which includes scrubbing their social media feeds of anything a grad school or future employer might find problematic. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) discovered that many students fear their college would punish them for saying something deemed “offensive,” and that fear contributes to widespread self-censorship among students. Young people are most likely to shy away from topics like race and sex, topics that lie at the center of some of our most intractable problems. How can we improve society if we’re afraid to discuss important issues openly?
In short, cancel culture’s biggest blow doesn’t strike Dave Chappelle, or any individual person. It strikes what so many defenders and deniers of cancel culture care about so much—progress. And that strikes us all.
Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, "B. 'Internal' Criticism," in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 3d ed. (2017), 104-108. Not only do all Democratic-Party-voting people not agree with each other on every point, even the practitioners of critical race theory have their (substantial) differences. As a strategy for advancing racial justice, CRT would seem to need lots of open, frank discussion among people of good will before adopting it as a totalizing system of thought.
On "Latinx": This author, writing on the NBC News website, explains why Americans with roots in Latin America do not prefer the term Latinx. Use of the term by Democratic politicians is driving Latino voters away from the party according to Politico. And the Atlantic reports that Democratic politicians are increasingly declining to use the term.
Julian Sanchez, "Frum, Cocktail Parties, and the Threat of Doubt," Juliansanchez.com, March 26th, 2010. Libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez appropriated the term "epistemic closure" from philosophy to describe what was happening within movement conservatism back in 2010.
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter. If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation. A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome this, because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy....
It’s fundamentally a symptom of insecurity—and a self-defeating one, because it corrodes the kind of serious discussion and reexamination of conservative principles and policies that might help produce a more self-assured movement.