In a time of deep division, are campuses accelerants of the culture wars or antidotes to the disease of polarization?
We should all hope for the latter.
America, as the political philosopher Danielle Allen says, is a diverse democracy seeking wholeness, not oneness. Wholeness suggests a recognition of deep difference -- even disagreement -- and a commitment to learn from one another and live together despite our varying views.
John Courtney Murray reminds us that this talking together and living together is actually the definition of civilization, and that the type of pluralist civilization we are attempting to build in the United States is remarkably rare in human history. It needs to be cherished, nurtured and protected.
And that’s why the organization I run, IFYC, recently launched a program called Courageous Pluralism. We have paired campuses generally considered to be on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum and created an educational design that helps participating faculty/staff/students learn about one another and work together on some fundamental things, even while disagreeing on others.
The funding model -- partnering philanthropic institutions, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Fetzer Institute, that are ideologically different -- matches the program model.
At the launch event at the Aspen Institute last week, an administrator from Spring Arbor College (an evangelical school that has been partnered with the famously progressive Oberlin College) remarked that this would be some of the most important work he would ever do.
(Read more about the Courageous Pluralism program in this piece by my colleague Mary Ellen Giess.)
In his wonderful book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University, remarks that on any list of America’s great contributions to human civilization -- jazz, baseball, the Constitution -- our system of over 2,500 four-year residential colleges and universities would rank near the top.
We Americans ask a lot of our colleges. They define what makes an educated person and raises a generation of students up to that standard. They advance a knowledge base for the rest of our society, help set the civic priorities of the nation and serve as mini civil societies.
Of all the roles that campuses play, certainly amongst the most important is that they model what it means to be a diverse democracy. Our higher ed institutions, precisely because they highlight how particular identities can welcome diversity, are in a position to teach -- and help young people practice -- the art of strengthening particular identity while also building bridges across groups.
Consider this: roughly half of the private colleges in the United States were started by religious communities, and remarkably few restrict admission to their own group. This is an astonishing feature of American society. Institutions created to form people within one tradition now commonly serve as platforms that bring together and advance people from a range of traditions. We have found an avenue for the expression of religious identity in a way that doesn’t create balkanization but instead facilitates bridging social capital.
The Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that “a central purpose of higher education [is] to initiate students into conflict.” A diverse democracy will inevitably have countless legitimate conflicts. Precisely for this reason, civic spaces that specialize in teaching people how to engage in such conflicts through language and politics rather than violence are essential, and people who learn these skills are well positioned to become a society’s leaders. MacIntyre goes so far as to say that “only from the university can the wider society learn how to conduct its own debates, practical or theoretical, in a rationally defensible way.”
That is a lot to ask. And also, precisely what we need.