Halting the Race to the Bottom

John Sexton considers the destructive impact of dogmatism on civil discourse -- and how universities may provide an antidote.

September 18, 2006

It is alarming that, in our age of information, the number of utterly uninformed voters is astonishingly high. We are witnessing a palpable decline in the public’s appetite for nuance, complexity and critical thinking, which in turn has spawned a virulent secular dogmatism and an alarming devolution in both the substance and style of public discourse.

Viewed superficially, we could celebrate our time as a halcyon era of information and discourse. The Internet is a revolutionary tool, which provides the newest basis for such a belief; however, it works not only for but also (and less obviously) against the ideal of an informed and intellectually curious public. It does enable the previously passive and powerless to become actors and interactors in the unfolding drama of public discourse and politics; but, even as it empowers and informs vast numbers of citizens, it also is a tool for misinformation and false attacks, polluting the dialogue with an apparent “knowledge” base undisciplined by traditional standards of accuracy in public communication. Bloggers are their own editors and many make little effort to verify what they post.

As an information surplus develops, the absence of accountability combines with an absence of formal checks to make it possible for pseudofacts to spread like wildfire. This presents even the intelligent and the rigorous with a serious sorting problem. One unsurprising response to this barrage of undifferentiated information is a kind of nihilism about knowledge which leads almost inexorably to an equation of fact and opinion and the reduction of argumentation to assertion. Paradoxically, this trend breeds and feeds a version of unreflective dogmatism.

The signs are everywhere. The guru of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs, introduced his latest product, the iPod Shuffle, a machine designed to free the music listener from deciding what song he or she wants to hear, by proclaiming the slogan: “Life is random.” And, to the same effect, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, intellectualizes this call to randomness, advising people to Blink - to “think without thinking” by relying on intuition rather than analysis and reflection. True to his provocative thesis, Gladwell offers it without taking account of the clear experimental data showing, in the words of New York Times columnist, David Brooks, that “formal statistical analysis is a much, much better way of predicting everything from the outcome of a football game to the course of liver cancer than the intuition even of experts.”

Even the SAT exam, for decades a symbol of American meritocracy, displays this disturbing trend. Much was made of the inclusion, beginning this year, of a writing component in the basic test: this, we were told, would test critical thinking. Yet, as it turns out, success on the test is best produced by accepting one or the other of the dichotomous positions presented in the test essay question -- and arguing strongly for it, offering no weight to the adverse point of view, no waffling. Clarity of view is the key -- no penalty even for preposterously incorrect facts -- and, this, in service of critical thinking?

The general tendencies are reflected in the increasingly impoverished quality of what is said by our political leaders in the public forum. Candidates for public office now relentlessly employ slogans, talking points, simplistic messages and attack ads. Ninety percent of political conversation amounts to dueling “talking points.” Best-selling books reinforce what folks thought when they bought them. Talk radio and opinion journals preach to the converted. Let’s face it: the purpose of most political speech is not to persuade but to win, be it power, ratings, celebrity or even cash.

By contrast, marshaling a case to persuade those who start from a different position is a lost art. Honoring what’s right in the other side’s argument seems a superfluous thing that can only cause trouble, like an appendix. Politicos huddle with like-minded souls in opinion cocoons that seem impervious to facts.

Certainty must not replace truth as the goal of inquiry. The issues we face today must be viewed from multiple perspectives and do not have one single definition, let alone a single resolution. How do we provide quality health care at low cost to all citizens? What does it take to reduce the achievement gap in education? What needs to be done to overcome racism, sexism, homophobia? How should we treat new immigrants? We must have more than information to address such problems; we must have the humility to understand that we may arrive at wise conclusions, but never at certainty.

The “DIKW” hierarchy -- data, information, knowledge, wisdom -- is relevant here. An overwhelming amount of information is available today -- too much, really, for any individual to absorb easily. There are, unfortunately, too few people who have the knowledge, insight and skills to put together information in useful ways and too few venues where those attributes are valued and rewarded. T.S. Eliot famously wrote: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we lost in information?”

The University Itself in Danger

Our great universities can and must be in the forefront of reversing the trends I have described. But this is not a simple tale with an ending in which universities play the hero. Make no mistake about it: precisely at this moment when research universities are needed as an antidote to public dogmatism and what I call a “coliseum culture,” in which audiences are fed spectacle over substance, they themselves are increasingly threatened.  As complex arguments and reasoned nuance are devalued in favor of the simplistic and the dogmatic, the very basis of research universities is devalued and subverted.

The threat initially comes from a broad societal trend: just as the attention span of our people has shrunk, so also our society has elevated the importance of short-term results – whether manifest in value placed on corporate quarterly reports or the evident appetite for quick and painless solutions to society’s problems. Such developments do not bode well for the university’s commitment to free and open inquiry, to patient and rigorous experimentation, all in pursuit not of a pre-determined purpose, but of the advancement of knowledge wherever it leads.

At some level, we know that the myopic focus on immediate and predictable returns is foolish. We understand the simple wisdom caught in the African parable praising those who plant trees under which others will sit; we instinctively grasp the importance of the basic research done in our universities. Thus, the late Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale recalled that the 11th edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica on which he was weaned contained nine columns on the Delian League, but only two on the topic of uranium, which the Britannica authors described as “useless.” The lesson: Seeking knowledge for its own sake has great rewards, even in utilitarian terms; but they often are unanticipated, or even immeasurable.

Examples abound to demonstrate that often the greatest advances come haltingly, over time, and from unexpected directions; I offer just one, provided by my friend, Sam Thier. Three or four decades ago, a child diagnosed with cystic fibrosis would die in the first decade of life. Over time, with improved antibiotics, the child could live into the second decade of life. More recently, by combining antibiotics with muculytic agents and respiratory therapy, the child could live into the third decade of life. Now, because the progressive destruction of the lung or injury to the heart and lung can be rectified by transplantation, the child can live into the fourth or fifth decades of life -- but only with continuous anti-rejection medication. For the last 10 years or more, we have known the genetic defect that causes cystic fibrosis, and, through understanding that defect, today we know how it produces the clinical disease. It is almost certain that with another round or two of basic research, we can learn to correct the gene defect, prevent or cure the condition, and obviate all the expensive and uncomfortable therapeutic maneuvers that have extended the life of cystic fibrosis patients. We are not yet at that point, but it is only active research that can take us there, producing immense social and economic benefits.

As I said, we realize, at least at some level, the wisdom of Pelikan’s story or Thier’s account of the fight against cystic fibrosis. Still, given society’s quest for simple answers and immediate outcomes, there are signs that our leaders’ interest in supporting the research enterprise is waning. For the first time in memory, funding for the National Science Foundation has been cut. Funding for the National Institutes of Health has been held constant, thereby reducing it in real terms. The research medical university in America is in jeopardy as falling government funding combines with the emphasis on cost reduction, HMOs and managed care to make it difficult, if not impossible, to sustain simultaneously the basic, translational and clinical research that has been the pride of academic medical centers.

We have seen the close to total evaporation of funding for research in the humanities and social sciences -- work which has less measurable outcomes than scientific research, even as it expands the boundaries of understanding and insight. Though John Maeda could write in Science Magazine that he believed “the biggest breakthrough will be the realization that the arts, which are conventionally considered useless, will be recognized as the whole reason why we ever try to live longer or live more prosperously.” He could embrace the notion that “the arts are the science of enjoying life,” while our leaders (reflecting as they do society’s increasing impatience with soft values and subtle tones) have come close to abandoning the arts. This portends the dominance of a value system which fails to recognize the importance of the research university itself.

Ironically, as society places more and more importance on short-term metrics, also at stake is the quality of the concrete preparation for life we offer our students. Even as greater emphasis is being placed upon the assessment of higher education in terms of job placement (the recent emphasis of our political leaders on community colleges is just one symptom of this phenomenon), and even as there are signs that such a metric will be applied broadly to assess the higher education enterprise, it is increasingly clear that an overemphasis on vocational training is wrong and potentially disastrous in a world where the generations we are training will go through several careers in a lifetime – and as the world economy changes, it will be more and more essential for Americans to understand and embrace the importance of a good life as well as a good income. The strange truth is that just as we enter a time when it is fundamental to train people for life rather than simply for jobs, our universities -- long expert in elevating our capacity to live a full, meaningful, and useful life -- are being pressured to narrow their focus to job placement.

There are other threats to our research universities, often emanating from self-appointed "guardians" who would restrict free inquiry on campus or impose regulations requiring that the composition of the faculty conform to their notions of "balance." To the extent the trends represent an attempt to silence or truncate discussion -- or even simply to reduce dialogue to sloganeering, they gravely jeopardize the essence of our universities.

For example, recent years have seen a startling increase in the number of “watchdog groups” who would exclude or punish certain views by silencing members of the university’s faculty or other members of the community. A group like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) assaults, targets, and intimidates faculty and students engaged in research.  In a different cause, groups like Campus Watch keep comprehensive lists of professors they deem biased and organize parental and student campaigns, both against specific faculty members and entire institutions based upon an asserted failure to meet a political litmus test.

The substance and shadow of intimidation too often succeed in repressing free inquiry, even in cases where a professor’s statements are well within the mainstream of a university’s dialogue. And, of course, the farther the professor moves from the mainstream, the more intense the reaction: A report of a special committee of the American Association of University Professors recounts repeated attempts after the September 11th terrorist attack to censure or dismiss scholars who argued that we ought to reexamine American foreign policy as a source of alienation or provocation. One does not have to agree with this view to disagree with a Congressman, who, in one well-reported case, actually said that the issue was not whether the professor in question had the right to make what he called “idiotic comments,” but whether after making them he had the right to remain in his position at a distinguished university.

Another Congressman, spurred by a group called the Traditional Values Coalition, sent the National Institutes of Health a list of some 250 research projects he denounced as unfit for taxpayer support. The projects, all of which had survived the rigorous peer review process at NIH, involved research on such issues as drug abuse, women’s health, and dangerous behavior associated with the AIDS virus. An NYU scholar who was a principal investigator on one of the projects is doing research on primary and secondary HIV prevention, and on the interaction between substance abuse, risk-taking, and the maintenance of health. Placing him and others like him on a “watch list,” an obvious attempt to chill both the willingness of scholars to undertake work in certain areas and the willingness of NIH to fund them, is a grave threat to the role of the research university as intellectual incubator.

The Congressman in the first case, of course, insisted that he was speaking not as an agent of government, but as an individual, so his intervention was indistinguishable from that of a notable alumnus or columnist. The Congressman in the second case would insist that he was simply acting in an oversight capacity. It is troubling, however, that increasingly government itself is exercising its enormous power to exert pressure on the nature and content of the dialogue on campus -- and of the research that is the predicate to that dialogue.

Similar threats to the university already have been enshrined in law. One of the most pernicious is the Solomon Amendment, an attempt through law -- unfortunately, in my view, recently upheld by the Supreme Court -- to force universities to ignore their written policies against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, nationality, gender or sexual orientation – a policy that reflects the university’s commitment to openness and different points of view. Put more concretely, because of present government policy, military recruiters refuse to sign the standard pledge required as a condition of interviewing on most campuses -- a pledge foreswearing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Solomon Amendment (named not for the wise king, but for its sponsor, the late New York Representative Gerald Solomon) withdraws all federal funding from a university in which even just one department denies interviewing privileges to the military. Faced with the draconian prospect of losing tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars for everything from scholarship students to medical research, universities have been forced to betray their own fundamental values. Now, in addition, homeland security laws like the artfully named USA PATRIOT Act threaten the autonomy of academic libraries, forcing librarians to provide FBI agents with personal reader information, or even to hand over library computers. Moreover, the act simultaneously prevents libraries from protecting their borrowers against government surveillance and bars them from informing students, teachers, or researchers if their choice of reading is being watched and recorded.

Certainly, sensible standards are justified to address the threat of terrorism. But the blunderbuss inefficiency and obtrusiveness of the present regulation of foreign nationals risks endangering the long tradition of American universities opening their gates to the world’s most gifted professors and students -- a tradition that has served this nation well, that has advanced the national interest in spreading values of liberty, tolerance, and justice across the globe, and that has been a rich component of the intellectual exchange on our campuses.

The threats to the sanctuary are not just external. Indeed, in discussions about American universities in the media and in popular culture, what concern there is about genuine dialogue on our campuses typically focuses on the fear of internal forces loosely and sometimes inaccurately associated with the phrases like “political correctness.” In my view, much of the political correctness debate reflects a lack of understanding or information about what actually happens in academe. Indeed, the stereotypical charges issued by public figures like William Bennett, Camille Paglia, and Ramesh Ponnuru, among others, function as a silencing device of their own -- and may be intended as such.

Nevertheless, that having been said, there is a kernel of important truth captured in the popular political correctness debate -- one that transcends political categories like left and right. Those who enjoy, in the civil sphere, a certitude of viewpoint that is not open to change by reasoned argument are incapable of contributing or even participating in meaningful dialogue. They cannot contribute because they treat their conclusions as matters of dogma and, therefore, expound their positions in declaratory form; they live in an Alice in Wonderland world -- first the conclusion, then the conversation. They can incite responses; they even can create an intellectual adrenaline rush; but they cannot produce insight. So also they cannot participate meaningfully in the dialogue because they will not engage it; for them, the exercise is a serial monologue in which they state, restate, and refute but never revisit or rethink their positions. Thus, the kernel of truth in the political correctness debate: ideological conversation is of little or no value.

If we are to resist successfully external forces that would impose theological politics and dogmatism on campus, we must take care to resist any tendency toward dogmatism within the walls of our universities. So we must insist on a pervasive, genuine, rigorous, civil dialogue. Silencing of viewpoints cannot be tolerated, and disciplinary dogmatism must be challenged. Even if the political correctness attack is largely baseless (surely, the claim that political correctness rules our universities is undermined by the fact that most major donors and board members at major universities hold views contrary to those allegedly infecting the organizations they control or influence), it is undeniably true that dogmatism is not confined to people of faith. The commentator John Horgan offers one charming example:

Opposing self-righteousness is easier said than done. How do you denounce dogmatism in others without succumbing to it yourself? No one embodied this pitfall more than the philosopher Karl Popper, who railed against certainty in science, philosophy, religion and politics and yet was notoriously dogmatic. I once asked Popper, who called his stance critical rationalism, about charges that he would not brook criticism of his ideas in his classroom. He replied indignantly that he welcomed students’ criticism; only if they persisted after he pointed out their errors would he banish them from class.

Dogmatism on campus must be fought if universities are to be a model for society. Silencing any view -- in class, on campus, or in civil discourse -- must be shamed when it occurs, and those who seek to silence others should be forced to defend their views in forums convened, if necessary, especially for that purpose. Above all, we must not let our universities be transformed into instruments of an imposed ideology. There is instead an urgent agenda to pursue: the genuine incubation, preservation, and creation of knowledge, the nurturing of a respect for complexity, nuance, and genuine dialogue -- not only on university campuses, but beyond the campus gates.

The Research University as Counterforce
My colleague Richard Foley, a significant scholar in philosophy who now is NYU’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, some years ago noted a trend deep in the history of epistemology that suggests that if one is rational enough, one can be assured of not falling into error. Descartes held such a view, and others have followed him in it. He notes that in some ways this is a natural view: One might ask, what is the point of having rational opinions if it does not assure you of the truth? But the big conceptual point of Dick’s book, Working Without a Net, is that however natural, this is a mistake, because there is no way to construct an intellectual system that provides one with non-question begging assurances of its own truth. So, we are, as it were, always working without an intellectual net. As he says:

Since we can never have non-question begging assurances that our way of viewing things is correct, we can never have assurances that there is no point to further inquiry. The absolute knowledge of the Hegelian system, which requires the knowing mind to be wholly adequate to its objects and to know it is thus, is not a possibility for us. It cannot be our goal, a human goal. For us there can be no such final resting place.

The last point seems especially significant for universities -- for universities have to be places where there is no final intellectual resting place. A "final intellectual resting place" is one that is regarded as so secure and so comprehensive that there is no longer any point to acquiring further evidence or to reevaluating the methods that led to the view. The dogmatic in effect believe that they already have arrived at their final intellectual resting place, which is why they are so at odds with the nature of the university.

Research universities, by their nature, deal in complexity; it is their stock and trade. Their essence is the testing of existing knowledge and the emergence of new knowledge through a constant, often vigorous but respectful clash of a range of viewpoints, sometimes differentiated from each other only by degrees. In nurturing this process, research universities require an embrace of pluralism, true civility in discourse, a honed cultivation of listening skills, and a genuine willingness to change one’s mind.

In this way, research universities can offer a powerful reproach to the culture of simplistic dogmatism and caricatured thought in a model of nuanced conversation. Our universities must extend their characteristic internal feature, the meaningful testing of ideas, so that it becomes an “output” that can reach into and reshape a wider civic dialogue. And, they must invite the public into the process of understanding, examining and advancing the most complex and nuanced of issues with an evident commitment to take seriously the iterative and evolutionary encounter of a stated proposition with commentary and criticism about it.

Of course, in this process, so familiar on our campuses, views are held strongly and defended vigorously. The embrace of the contest of ideas and tolerance of criticism does not mean a surrender of conviction. Informed belief is fundamentally different from dogmatism, just as the search for truth is very different from the quest for certitude. Dogmatism is deeply rooted in its dualistic view of the world as saved/damned, right/wrong, or red/blue -- and it claims certainty in defining the borders of these dualistic frames. But, within the university, conviction is tempered: the discovery and development of knowledge require boldness and humility -- boldness in thinking the new thought, and humility in subjecting it to review by others. Dialogue within the university is characterized by a commitment to engage and even invite, through reasoned discourse, the most powerful challenges to one’s point of view. This requires attentiveness and mutual respect, accepting what is well founded in the criticisms offered by others, and defending one’s own position, where appropriate, against them; it is both the offer of and the demand for argument and evidence.

The very notion of the research university presupposes the possibility of creating a hierarchy of ideas, and it goes beyond the simple goal of facilitating an understanding of the positions of others, to achieve genuine progress in thought, the validation of some ideas and the rejection of others. It is a given that, at the heart of the process of ongoing testing which characterizes the university as a sanctuary of thought, is the notion that no humanly conceived “truth” is invulnerable to challenge; still, this axiom need not -- and does not -- mean that the pursuit of truth requires that all questions must be kept open at all times. In the university, we can and do reach certainty on some propositions, subject of course to the emergence of new evidence. And even the certitudes of faith are subject to new understanding: My Church once condemned Galileo, but now applauds him; it once carried out capital punishment, but now condemns it.

While the dialogue within our universities is not an expression of agnosticism about truth itself, its very being embodies the realization that a fuller truth is attained only when a proposition is examined and reexamined, debated and reformulated from a range of viewpoints, through a variety of lenses, in differing lights and against opposing ideas or insights. Whether through scholarly research or creative work, conventional knowledge is questioned, reaffirmed, revised, or rejected; new knowledge is generated and articulated, prevailing notions of reality are extended and challenged and insight is expanded. Jonathan Cole described the process in Daedalus:

The American research university pushes and pulls at the walls of orthodoxy and rejects politically correct thinking. In this process, students and professors may sometimes feel intimidated, overwhelmed, and confused. But it is by working through this process that they learn to think better and more clearly for themselves. Unsettling by nature, the university culture is also highly conservative. It demands evidence before accepting novel challenges to existing theories and methods. The university ought to be viewed in terms of a fundamental interdependence between the liberality of its intellectual life and the conservatism of its methodological demands. Because the university encourages discussion of even the most radical ideas, it must set its standards at a high level. We permit almost any idea to be put forward – but only because we demand arguments and evidence to back up the ideas we debate and because we set the bar of proof at such a high level. These two components -- tolerance for unsettling ideas and insistence on rigorous skepticism about all ideas -- create an essential tension at the heart of the American research university. It will not thrive without both components operating effectively and simultaneously.

In short, to a large degree the university embodies the ideal in discourse -- commitment to scrutiny and the examination of research in the marketplace of ideas. Now it can and must offer even more as the counterforce and the counterexample to the simpleminded certainty of dogmatism and the depleted dialogue of the coliseum culture. It is, of course, conceivable (even plausible) that instead our universities will assume a defensive posture and withdraw into their sheltered walls; such a tendency always exists in the life of the mind, evoking from the cynical the constant reminder that one of the dictionary’s entries for the word “academic” is “beside the point.” In the face of forces around it hostile to the search for knowledge, the temptation for higher education to insulate itself is greater than normal, and perhaps more understandable; but withdrawal, however tempting, would be irresponsible and ultimately destructive for both society and the university. In these times, society cannot cure itself; the university must do its part.

The core reasons the university can provide an antidote to the malaise that’s afflicting civil discourse arise from some essential features of higher education on the one hand and contemporary politics on the other.

First, whereas the political domain is now characterized by bipolar interests or, worse yet, disaggregated special interests, which are not even bipolar, in principle the commitment of a university and its citizens is to the common enterprise of advancing understanding; inherently those involved in research and creativity build on the work of others and expand knowledge for all. The university sometimes falls short of this ideal; but now more than ever, it is vital for universities to live it. Internal attention to the university’s defining mission and vigilant adherence to its best attributes must be paramount if it is to function as a force for renewing civil discourse within our society.

The second feature of the university that differentiates it from the prevailing trend in politics is that the advancement of knowledge and ideas on campus is a fully transparent, absolutely testable process in which all can participate. And today the search for knowledge which is at the core of the university can be uncabined and sometimes even unlocated physically in a particular institution of higher education; in the era of the communications revolution and an internet that spans the globe, participation in the pursuit of knowledge operates on a worldwide network. The advancement of knowledge is of the university, but not always or necessarily on the campus. You cannot bar anyone from the process. If a mathematician in Bombay can disprove a theory conceived in New York, no amount of misplaced elitism or nationalism can change that reality. Or, if a clerk in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, develops breakthrough theories in physics, it does not matter that there is not yet a “Professor” in front of his name. By contrast, in politics, gerrymandering makes it possible to insulate officeholders from ever having seriously to confront competing ideas, ideologies, and candidates.

The third feature that distinguishes the university is that the ultimate test for scholars is time. The ultimate reward comes in the long-term durability of one’s work, being remembered by future generations as the father or the mother of an idea. Indeed, those in the research university know that their contributions may be understood only in the very long term. The advancement of knowledge is the driving purpose; it is inherently collegial and intergenerational, even for the solo thinker or artist because each person stands on the foundation of someone else’s work, and successive scholars provide new or higher platforms for the next chapter in the unfolding story of knowledge. By contrast, in the politics of the coliseum culture, politicians view short-term losses as almost apocalyptic.

Given these distinguishing features, the research university can and must become a place from which we press back against the accelerating trend toward dogmatism I see developing. The university has a dual role in the civic dialogue, as both a rebuke to simplemindedness and as a model of how things can be done differently. And, in preventing the collapse of civil discourse, the university simultaneously will safeguard itself from the concomitant effects of a society that disregards the reflected thought, reduces the interchange of ideas to the exchange of sound bytes or insults, and often shrinks the arena for discussion to a constricted, two dimensional space. 


John Sexton is president of New York University. This essay is adapted from a speech he gave at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.


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