A Case For Intellectual Pluralism | Jeff Bullock - University of Dubuque

A Case for Intellectual Pluralism

Published in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald on June 18th, 2017

I still recall with equal measure of fondness and terror my professor’s green pen.  I don’t know what it was with my former professors, but most seemed to write their critiques with green ink.  Such was the case with one of my seminary professors. 

“Jeffrey,” he wrote, “I can’t adequately express to you how much I disagree with the argument you are making as well as your conclusion.  Nevertheless, it’s a well-written paper.  ‘A.’”

In all honesty, this openness to intellectual diversity occupied the majority of my graduate career.  There was a genuine respect for a well thought out idea, and sometimes an affirmation for the slightest bit of intellectual maturation.  I experienced that respect as I watched my teachers interact with each other.  There was genuine friendship around the lunch table that turned into rhetorical combat in the lecture hall.  Coffee and cookies were often served at the reception after the dueling lectures.  It took some getting used to, but it was an important exchange to experience.

So it is with a certain amount of unease that I read about the rage generated amongst students and others today when lecturers, presently of a more conservative bent, are invited to college campuses. 

Charles Murray, a political scientist with degrees from Harvard and M.I.T. had his presentation shut down at Middlebury College.  Murray is a respectable thinker. Losing Ground and Coming Apart are rigorous and well-researched books with conclusions that are intended to be thought-provoking.  I learn from him and people like him, even though I don’t always agree with his assessments. 

Ann Coulter’s announced appearance at Berkeley generated so much heat that the event was cancelled not too long after it was first announced. Coulter doesn’t pretend to be an academic, nor does she portray herself as being impartial or balanced.  She is an informed polemicist and self-described stirrer of the pot.  Disinviting her because she is too provocative is wrong for Berkeley and other Universities.

In their most mature form, college campuses should be known as places that facilitate the free exchange of well-thought-out ideas.  Ideas are to be judged by their merits.  Both good and bad ideas sharpen even better ideas.  Ideas matter because thinking matters.  Thinking matters because we live in a complicated era that demands our best ideas to begin solving our most complex problems.  Problems don’t get serious intellectual attention in echo chambers. 

Problems don’t get serious intellectual attention in echo chambers. Click To Tweet

In that regard, college campuses must be places of respect and tolerance—let’s call it intellectual pluralism.  Our Republic requires—even demands—places for the testing of ideas and public forums that expose the shortcomings of poor ideas, not safe places that protect students from those ideas. 

At its best, the University environment should be intellectually bruising yet breathtakingly civil.  An alarming number of colleges and Universities are not fulfilling that part of their responsibility to our country.  Thankfully, however, many of them are.

At its best, the University environment should be intellectually bruising yet breathtakingly civil. Click To Tweet

As one author notes, it’s important to remember that today’s college students may be tomorrow’s leaders and employers.  Work and engaged citizenship require a certain amount of toughness.  Universities that teach students to expect a frictionless environment have poorly prepared their students for their careers and life.  That same author also suggests that our failure to respect intellectual pluralism puts many of our own deeply held convictions at risk of a backlash.

That’s a fancy way of saying that pendulums ultimately swing both ways.

37 Comments

  1. I fully agree. As far as I’m concerned, you still deserve an “A”.

    • Rick,
      Thank you for your response and for reading the blog!!
      Jeffrey

  2. I agree with both you and Rick. I’m sorry I don’t have a green colored font for writing my response.

    • Bob,
      Thank you very much for reading the blog and for your response! It’s ok that you don’t have green ink. I’ve seen enough of it in my lifetime!!
      Thanks,
      Jeffrey

  3. I don’t care about the political affiliation of a campus speaker, but it seems counterintuitive to host one who uses pseudo science and divisiveness to propagate a xenophobic or prejudiced message. There is a similar dysfunctional element of the liberal spectrum brewing but people like Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos are not conservative, they are just hateful fear mongers. I agree that campuses need friction and debates, but some speakers are absolute and unbending to be persuaded or to be persuasive.

    • Ben,
      Thank you for your thoughtful response and for reading the blog in the first place. I believe that there are constructive ways to bring these “voices” together–from both the right and the left, that is. For example, putting Bill Maher and Ann Coulter on the same stage with a common topic/theme might actually be informative assuming, of course, the audience was disciplined enough to listen and sift the ideas, arguments, and opinions of both speakers. Just a thought.
      Thanks.
      Jeffrey

      • Thank you Jeff for your leadership at UD. It isn’t a liberal or conservative debate. Bringing Bill Maher and Ann Coulter together would just be for hype and noise. Neither person is someone that a UD grad should emulate as credible, persuasive, or being able to back up their opinions separately from bias and with research. It would be a show not an exercise in constructive dialog. We all know what the outcome would be and that neither would be open minded. It would attract some attention for UD, but it wouldn’t speak to the heart of what UD is supposed to represent.

  4. Sorry Ben, but I can’t agree with you. Ann Colter and Milo Yian… may be all that you describe, including “hateful fear mongers” But the effective way to combat that with which you disagree is to engage in the intellectually bruising yet breathtakingly civil discourse that Jeff speaks of. How are we going to teach our future leaders to recognize and effectively combat nonsense if we chose to shelter them from it instead of learning to dispute it effectively. Not to trivialize the discussion, but I can’t help but quote the fictitious president Andrew Shepherd, “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours”. That’s what Jeff wants to advocate on todays college campuses.

    • Jeff,
      Thank you so very, very much for your very thoughtful response. Well said, and thank you for engaging Ben in such a thoughtful, engaging way. It’s exactly what I’d hope could happen in these exchanges.
      Jeffrey

    • To “engage in the intellectually bruising yet breathtakingly civil discourse” requires that all participants be willing and able do so (see quotes below). This isn’t about free speech it is about academic institutions choosing to host people who don’t believe in discourse, how to craft a persuasive message, and provide well founded research to supplement their point. Free speech is vital to our country and learning on campuses, but schools shouldn’t voluntarily violate the core of their mission by giving pseudo science, hype, and hatred credibility. To cite real Americans Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and John Madison made each other’s “blood boil” in writing different opinions in the Federalist Papers they had vastly different visions for the Constitution. They like recent politicians such as Senators Harkin and Jim Leach could argue and defend something to the teeth, but go and get a beer afterwords realizing there was a merit of truth to the others argument.

      “I don’t really like to think of it as a murder. It was terminating Tiller in the 203rd trimester. . . ”

      “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.””I think the government should be spying on all Arabs, engaging in torture as a televised spectator sport, dropping daisy cutters wantonly throughout the Middle East and sending liberals to Guantanamo”

      “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy” it makes women “fat”; it “makes your voice unsexy” and “makes you jiggle wrong”; and it makes you “a slut” with “cottage cheese thighs.”

  5. Well Done! Thank you. Your words are urgently needed in this debate.

    • Don,
      Thank you for your kind words and for being a regular reader of this blog.
      Jeffrey

  6. Well written Jeff.

    I am a firm believer that university life should prepare students to face the realities of the world. Hearing both sides of every discussion is what true learning is about. From this true communication and discernment occurs.

    As a person that completed their education later in life, I was always amazed at how how much real world experience was sometimes as important as the books and lectures.

    • Tim,
      Thank you for your thoughtful response and for reading the blog in the first place. Also…thank you for what you do…period!!
      Jeffrey

  7. Thank you once again, Jeffrey, for your thought provoking blog and your willingness to listen. You always get an A+ in my book. More colleges, universities and seminaries should prepare people for the world in which we live by offering diverse opinions that are heard with tolerance and respect.

    • Carolyn,
      This is very kind…thank you! Thank you for reading the blog, and for doing what you do for my seminary! You’re a gem, and a gift to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
      Jeffrey

  8. Thank you Jeff. Unfotunately, we’ve evolved into a culture that struggles to survive on “dualistic thinking”. It’s my way or your way, and by the way it’s not going to be yours. The give take middle ground has dried up blown away.

    • Thanks, John,
      I can’t disagree with you but I’m not willing to give up, either! We’ve kind of devolved into convenient dualism I think because, well…because it’s convenient. We’ll do our part to keep working at facilitating a better way to be, listen, and constructively contribute here at the University of Dubuque.
      Jeffrey

  9. I really appreciate this article. Freedom of speech is an essential element of the use of reason, which is an essential element of higher education. Freedom of speech – listening to someone with whom you disagree profoundly – forces you to rethink your own position, your own arguments and your own reasoning, and may compel you to change your mind – or enable you to defend your own position more capably. In either case, it will compel you to dig more deeply into your own reasoning to discern the origins of your opinions and the main values you’re defending.

    • James,
      Thank you for reading this blog and for your very thoughtful comments!
      Jeffrey

  10. Talking about “Haters,” It is often difficult for me to tell just who the “Haters” are, the accused or the accusers.

  11. Thanks Jeff for stepping forward and stating what universities need to do to keep free-speech alive. I think they also have a responsibility to have an open forum afterwords to get civil discourse going on the topics that were presented. Teaching civility that goes along with free-speech is important to our society .

    • Tom…
      You are right. Civility is an acquired self-discipline, I think, and it doesn’t often come naturally to humankind. But it is a requirement upon which a healthy Republic must stand.
      Thank you.
      Jeffrey

  12. Well said and I agree, learning and seeing different thoughts and views helps us determine what we believe and agree with and expands our understanding of the world and people.

    • Tonya,
      Thank you for your thoughts and for reading the blog. I trust that you are well.
      Jeffrey

  13. I enjoy all of your posts, Jeffrey. Critical thinking and civil discourse are vital in our society. Thank you!

    • Cathy,
      As always, thank you for your thoughts and thank you for reading the blog in the first place!!
      Jeffrey

  14. Thank you, Jeffrey, for taking the time to share your views on important issues. I agree with your comments. Monday’s Supreme Court 8-0 Supreme Court ruling provided a robust defense for even distasteful and unpleasant speech on the Internet. While there is so much being said in the public arena which undermines what have been our commonly-held principles and accepted standards of behavior, it is encouraging to know that the Justices recognize that it is not the role of government to censor speech and ideas. Instead, we as a society — particularly our educational institutions — must impart to the next generation both the importance of the free exchange of ideas and the responsibilities associated with exercising the important freedom.

    • Tom,
      What a nice surprise to see that you’re reading the blog! Thank you for your thoughtful–and constructive–thoughts. I agree with you on all fronts; freedom and responsibility–together!
      Jeffrey

  15. Well said, Jeffrey. If college and university campuses cannot be places for a free exchange of ideas and viewpoints, then where will it occur? Very likely not legislative bodies. If we are in the business of educating tomorrow’s leaders, and I think we are, then free expression of ideas is critical to that future leadership, whether it be corporate, political, religious or any other areas of leadership. I wish your thoughts could reach the wider academic community (read: Presidents). Perhaps in the Chronicle of Higher Education or elsewhere.

    • Jerry,
      So nice of you to read the blog in the first place, and to offer your thoughts and insights. I don’t know that the Chronicle will publish something like this, but our associations periodically send the blog pieces around. And there’s more we can talk about in person.
      Jeffrey

  16. I am a little late to the blog, but applaud the article, as well as, the thoughts of Mr. Folker and Mr. Breed, in particular. I am mystified by the very adamant and vocal protests of large numbers of “Millenials” preceding a speaking event with the intent of cancelling such events, when this generation has been lauded for embracing and demanding diversity.

    I joke that my wife and I almost got divorced before we even got married, because while finding out who each other was, some 45 years ago, she could not tell me why Catholics believed this or that, or why they did certain things. I hope the Holy Roman Catholic Church has fixed this, but previously, their catechism classes only taught them the beliefs and rituals without explanation or the reasons behind them. She could not defend her Faith.

    I have found, at least for me, a challenging dialogue forces me to examine “WHY” I hold certain thoughts or viewpoints, usually based upon my core values and mores as a human being “endowed with certain inalienable rights.” More and more, these days, I find less and less black and white lines. In fact, I sometimes find I do not even know I have a certain belief until I am confronted with speaking about an an opinion or an issue.

    Without the back and forth propagated by “The Federalist Papers,” we may as well have just skipped over the entire political history of the United States and just started with the current political arena we currently live in – strict partisanship, loss of negotiation skills, and no more statesmanship. My present fear is an FDR-like Executive order 9066 with no one to rail against such a move.

    At UD, I think sadly of the lack of interest in the honest engagement of each other’s thoughts and viewpoints in the respectful forum once sponsored in Professor Garfield’s, “Civil Discourse.” Keep up the good fight, Jeff!

    • Bill,
      Thank you for taking the time to offer your extensive reflections. I’ve got some homework to do!
      Jeffrey

  17. Bravo, Jeffrey. I fear for the next generation if open and respected discourse is not valued.

  18. As usual Jeff your thought provoking ideas force people to evaluate what they think and why. Unfortunately there seems to be too much, “I’ve made up my mind don’t confuse me with facts” thinking in this world’s politics and university’s academia. I don’t have to agree with someone to give them the courtesy to speak. Even if I totally want to dismiss their ideas, I believe they have the right to try and persuade others what they believe and why. At age 75 now, I have different thoughts today on a variety of subjects because they were tested in the crucible of public debate and real experience. When I become afraid to hear new voices, strident as they may be, I have given up my right to critical thinking and debate. Keep challenging us with your thoughts Jeff. We don’t need a world of totally introspective people who need to be “safe” from ideas they disagree with.

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