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A Unique Responsibility of Universities

There are features of academia so essential to its nature that those within it sometimes fail to appreciate their importance.

Almost every attribute of a university is designed to engage dialectical interchanges — formal arguments sequentially presented in a “cooperative conflict” with shared goals of seeking truth. Sometimes the iterations of the argument take place slowly, with one book challenging the interpretations of another book published years earlier. Sometimes the dialogue happens more rapidly, in professional meetings with scholars face-to-face presenting alternative viewpoints.

Universities thrive on intellectual conflicts. However, the conflicts are governed by strong, but unwritten norms. First, the conflicts are not conflicts between persons but conflicts between ideas. Arguments are totally focused on alternative pieces of evidence that lead to different conclusions. Ad hominem arguments are simply not seen as valid and indeed lead to reduced credibility of those who forward them. Second, much of the interchange is focused on whether the actors are addressing the most important question and limiting the facts to that question. It is inappropriate and unwise to change the question in the middle of an argument. Third, while opinion and value judgments are inevitable in human discourse, the standard of interchange is use of objective evidence. The actors are required to submit their evidence for all to review. The more objective, replicable, and sound, the evidence is, the more influential is their argument. Hence, it is common for academics to avoid expressing their emotion-based opinions without an explicit disclaimer. Fourth, in many fields there are norms that require academics faced with new evidence to change their conclusions. Careful scholars using the scientific method explicitly state that their current knowledge is really the current state of the field, which they hope will become more and more sophisticated and insightful over time. All scholarship, in some way, has a goal of overturning earlier understanding by presenting new evidence to support new conclusions. Fifth, the intellectual dialectic needs multiple parties in the discourse. Hence, academics actively seek out those who see things differently. Without understanding a different theory of the case, one doesn’t know what evidence needs to be assembled to refute it. Hence, the debates and discourses are mutually beneficial to the opposing parties, in order to make more robust their own viewpoints or to provide new insights that are better descriptors of the truth.

One of my most vivid memories of a classroom display of this was when I co-taught a course with a colleague with whom I disagreed. We chose to display these disagreements in front the class. It worked to wake up the class, who, I guessed, had never witnessed such a display. We argued the alternative points of two approaches, with point-counterpoint. We continued the debate over class episodes. We chose to structure the discussion to illustrate the points above. We explicitly identified the question on which we disagreed; we went through the steps of logic. We ended by noting the absence of information that led to our current disagreement, and what further scholarship was needed to clear it up – in essence, “What evidence would it take to change your mind?”

We live in a world where day-to-day discourse on opposing viewpoints contains few of the properties of the intellectual dialectic described above. Popular media display multiple actors shouting over one another. There is little listening and much talking. There is no feature that suggests that the speakers share a goal of seeking understanding, but rather they are proselytizing pre-specified canons of their ideology.

So, I don’t think universities should be shy at this moment in history. We have real contributions to make to society. We offer calm, thoughtful, evidence-based exchanges of differing viewpoints as a vehicle of communion in seeking the truth. This is increasingly in short supply, but it seems that the demand for this is growing.

5 thoughts on “A Unique Responsibility of Universities

  1. I commend you on both your content and your timing,
    as we, as a society, seem to be returning to the time of my adolescence, a time of hate and distrust. I was in my early teens when Martin Luther King, John and Bobby Kennedy, and Malcolm X were assassinated. It was a time of great civil unrest and war,both at home and abroad !

    In the current political environment, I fear we are going back to that era, when frightened, angry citizens stopped listening to each other. I hope that you and the students continue this dialogue and work together to find comprehensive, lasting solutions to the problems of today.

  2. It might be that entertainment has become more valued than enlightenment in our society.

    It also might be that an increasing addiction to neuron stimulation makes an emotional discourse more appealing than an intellectual discourse.

    Notice how “I feel that …” has been replacing “I think that …” as the norm when expressing a view.

    Not that emotion and entertainment don’t have a place in the university setting (as in the case of waking up your class : – )

  3. I agree completely.

    Let’s face it, our American Experiment has run into serious trouble, and the “cooperative conflict” Provost Groves describes is the very medicine needed to save it.

    Given our status, location and heritage, Georgetown in particular should, in these times, deliberately and vigorously teach, promulgate and promote the methods of “cooperative conflict, ” both on campus and beyond it. I urge everyone in our university community to answer the Provost’s call to do so, each as you are able.

    This is what Jesuit education is all about. The methods of “cooperative conflict” were prescribed in its constitutional document, the Ratio atque Institutio Studiorum Societatis Jesu [the Official Plan for Jesuit Education] of 1599 [“Ratio Studiorum” for short]–referred to therein by the old-fashioned term “disputation.”

    So we do indeed, as Provost Groves suggests, have a real contribution to make to society at this particular moment in history. And we must.

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