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.