Dogmatism and Complexity: Civil Discourse and the Research University
August 2, 2005
Based upon a speech delivered at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
(February 2, 2005)
- Here I Stand
- The Danger I See
- The Growth of Theological Politics
- The Race to the Bottom in Civil Discourse
- The Exacerbating Bipolarity of American Politics
- The University Itself in Danger
- The Research University as Counterforce
- The Place of People of Faith in the Dialogue
I thank you for this honor, which I prize all the more because, from its founding nearly six centuries ago, Leuven has combined the two worlds that have been central to my own life – the world of faith and the world of learning.
Here, in the oldest Catholic University in the world still in existence, history has been shaped, learning has been expanded, and great breakthroughs have been made. One of your professors became Pope – the last non-Italian before John Paul II. You have given the world the Mercator projection map, the foundations of modern anatomy, the discovery of coal gas for lighting, the strictures of Jansenism, and the revival of Thomism.
My topic, in a very real sense, has been Leuven’s mission for more than half a millennium. Your university is an exemplar of the impact institutions like Leuven and NYU can have in the world of thought, the wider world of civic society, and the transcendent realm of faith. In this discussion, I will focus on the relationship among those worlds and the ways in which they challenge and enrich each other. I will offer two claims.
The first arises from the worrisome trends I see in civil discourse (at least in my country) and from my belief in the university’s capacity to lead a reversal of those trends both by modeling ways to engage in serious conversation and by inculcating, through its witness, certain habits of mind into society. This first claim is straightforward: I believe that the research university is society’s best hope to build – I should say to rebuild – serious civil discourse, the kind of discourse upon which a participatory democracy ultimately depends. This claim is animated by hope.
My second and more somber claim springs from an alternative possibility that must be understood by university leaders. I believe that the very trends that are undermining the quality of civil discourse threaten and, if not checked, soon will begin to jeopardize the enterprise which lies at the heart of the research university: to be specific, I believe that a growing allergy to complexity and nuance in society generally and the concomitant devaluation of intellectual depth and reflection portend a similar devaluation of what our universities do.
Together, these two claims reveal a single proposition: if universities do not serve as an antidote for the growing marginalization of seriousness in public discourse, they themselves will become marginalized.
Here I Stand
Because, like everyone, what I say is a product of where I stand and the factors that shape my attitudes and perspectives, I begin with my own experience. Of course, I am willing to elaborate on the propositions I state here, and I am quite willing to explain and defend them. At this point, however, I offer them only as background, and to provide some sense of the personal experience which informs my message.
I am a person of faith – formed by American Catholicism in the fifties and transformed by the Vatican Council of the sixties. As a result, I am an unabashed Teilhardian optimist.
I was raised in Brooklyn in the cauldron of Irish Catholic Democratic politics at a time when Senator Joseph McCarthy was viewed by many (and perhaps even my mother) as the fourth member of the Trinity. The Catholicism instilled in us consisted of a set of simple rules: Do not eat meat on Friday, go to Mass on Sunday, and do not even think about sex until you are married. If you were nervous about whether simple adherence to this set of rules would deliver immortal bliss, you could make the nine “First Fridays” to seal the deal: on the First Friday of nine successive months get to mass and receive communion and you were guaranteed to go to heaven, perhaps after a detour to purgatory.
The Vatican Council replaced this simplistic view with a call to widen our horizons and take up the wonderful burden of a personal responsibility. And many of us began immediately to wrestle with the increasingly complex moral issues posed by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War – issues which pressed us to confront authority and tradition in ways new to us.
I also stand here as a person of the mind, one privileged to head a research university. My first academic home was in the Arts and Sciences – from my foundational liberal arts education by Jesuits who believed an inability to read Horace and Homer in Latin and Greek constituted illiteracy, to my time as chair of a college religion department. From there, I entered law school; and it was as a law school dean that I began to think seriously about the role of higher education in the emerging globalized civil society.
In a way, my two worlds (the world of faith and the world of the mind) first came together vividly when, during the Vatican Council, I began my doctoral studies under the direction of an extraordinary Fordham theologian and philosopher named Ewert Cousins. His intellectual journey parallels my own and that of American Catholicism from the fifties to the decades after Vatican II, although the Church’s direction may be changing again today. It is worth telling his story.
In 1963, Ewert was a leading expert on the work of Saint Anselm, the medieval theologian. Twenty years later, the United Nations was celebrating the publication of his 60- volume work on world spirituality – a magnum opus honoring and exploring 25 faith traditions, exalting their collective insight.
In his work today, Ewert sees nothing less than the dawn of what he calls the Second Axial Age – a rare turning point in human history. In using this label, he invokes Karl Jaspers’ First Axial Age, a term Jaspers used to describe the period between 800 and 200 BC which witnessed humanity’s journey from primal, tribal organization toward a new individual consciousness. From Plato to Confucius, from Elijah to Christ, the notion of the individual was grasped, developed, and disseminated by original thinkers around the world: humans came to conceive of themselves as distinct individuals with independent minds and souls, and they rejected the notion that they simply were threads in a seamless fabric of tribal existence.
For Ewert, the age in which we find ourselves, the Second Axial Age, will see the integration of our now fully mature sense of individuality with the collectivity of the new global era. He sees something more fundamental than globalization, reaching deeper than an “end of history” or a “clash of civilizations.” His Second Axial Age is a Teilhardian “planetization” - the reshaping of humanity’s intellectual, cultural, and spiritual identity in a vibrant global community where, even while maintaining individuality, all will realize a fuller sense of common destiny and responsibility.
In Ewert’s eyes, this Second Axial Age challenges religions to embrace and shape the reconceptualization of human individuality and collectivity – rejecting fundamentalism, which in religion is antithetical to the Teilhardian notion of humankind’s evolution, a notion at the heart of Ewert’s vision. The Second Axial Age requires a new and broader ecumenical dialogue which entirely and joyfully pursues mutual insight and enrichment; only by embracing fully this dialogue can religions fulfill their central and sacred place at the heart of the mutating human experience.
In short, the claim is that we are at an important juncture in the ongoing Teilhardian process of emergence, divergence, and convergence. The First and Second Axial Ages taken together will have seen emergence of a new form, its divergence into a multiplicity of forms, and finally a convergence towards a Point Omega. The attainment of that point will mark a vital passage across a critical threshold to a new form.
This is a bold vision, posing a challenge which can either strengthen or subvert the durability – some might argue the centrality – of religion’s role in society. It is questionable whether sufficient numbers of those who care about religion – and, perhaps even more problematically, sufficient numbers of those who lead our religions – will be able to bring themselves to the kind of openness to alternative conceptions of reality that Ewert’s Second Axial Age demands. Yet in a time of renewed religious conflict, or at least of conflict cloaked in religion, this is a supremely vital task – and, Ewert argues, taking up that task is indispensable to the quest for ultimate meaning that is the claim of each faith and all religions.
In the life I lead today, both as a person of faith and as a university president, the lens through which I view things is different from Ewert’s; still, I often see connections between his thoughts on transcendent issues and both the nature of my daily work and the role of research universities such as the one that I serve.
NYU’s location in New York City and its aggressive embrace of its environment make such a connection almost unavoidable. If we accept that a paramount challenge of our time is the construction of a meaningful civil society in a world both globalized and miniaturized, then New York City undeniably offers one of the first laboratories for that experiment: nearly 40% of my City’s citizens were born outside the United States; six of 10 babies born in New York last year were born to an immigrant parent; 140 languages other than English heard on the streets of New York now are the first languages of those speaking them; and, of the 202 countries represented at the Athens Olympics, 199 are represented in New York City’s public school system by students born in those countries. The only move forward for such a city – or for a university within it – is to pursue and realize the ideal of a Second Axial Age.
That’s enough, for now, about the experiences which shape my approach to this subject. Let me turn to the subject itself.
The Danger I See
Put simply, from where I stand, I see danger. I am noticing a startlingly pervasive dogmatism in American society. Put another way, what dominated religious discourse as I first experienced it in the fifties is increasingly evident in civil discourse today. The Church I knew then was presented as exclusive and triumphal; we were taught that, with the narrow exception of baptism by imputed desire (which was reserved for “the invincibly ignorant”), the judgment of God was extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church, there is no salvation”). It was only at the dawn of the sixties, with the election of John Kennedy and the stimulus provided by theologians like the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, that American Catholicism and then the Vatican Council explicitly professed a respect for pluralism – and the ecumenical movement was born.
What I find lamentable is that 40 years after the Council, when I as a Teilhardian optimist would have expected not only Catholic America but all of America to have passed through a critical threshold to a full embrace of pluralism, I see instead a reemerging and intensifying dogmatism. When I say dogmatism, I deliberately use a word with religious overtones; but I use it to denote a habit of mind – a close-mindedness or lack of intellectual openness – that is more secular than religious.
Like most phenomena, this one is an aggregation of elements – in this case, at least two. The first is what might be called theological politics, a phrase I offer to capture the tendency of more and more of my fellow citizens literally to derive political views from maxims of religious faith, maxims at best untestable in civil discourse and sometimes at odds with observable reality.* The second is a different and, I believe, more pervasive dogmatism, one born of the increasing allergy of many citizens to the hard intellectual work of dealing with complexity and nuance. In my view, the resulting appetite for simple answers is nourished in a feedback loop involving the media and civic leaders, and breeds a discourse by slogan (equally untestable in civil dialogue) and a powerful civic dogmatism.
The confluence of these elements of dogmatism is combining with the political reality of a divided America to undermine the style and substance of civic discourse. It is my thesis both that the research university is perhaps the last real hope we have to reverse this trend and that, if our universities fail to provide an antidote to dogmatism, they themselves will become victims of it.
With that as an outline, let me turn to developing my argument.
* I do not use “theological” here to refer to the academic discipline, which (at least ideally) is rooted on scholarly principles familiar in the Humanities; instead, I use the term in a sense that is closer to its literal Greek meaning to describe a politics based on the perceived “word” (logos) of “God” (theos).
The Growth of Theological Politics
The last decade of American politics (and especially the last election) reveals in more than a negligible portion of the American body politic an appetite for importing religion into political discourse. At its most assertive, this dogmatism (most apparent among religious fundamentalists), dismisses and disdains the dialogue essential to a diverse and tolerant society.
To be sure, the fundamentalist influence on politics is not an exclusively American phenomenon; the trends discernable in the United States obviously exist in other countries and cultures. Nonetheless, I will describe what I observe in America, both because I know it best and because it is likely in any case that the development of such dogmatism in the United States ultimately will accelerate developments elsewhere.
Today, a noteworthy number of American fundamentalists are willing – or even eager – to welcome drought, famine, environmental destruction, or war as portents of an imminent Rapture which will take up the saved and leave the rest of humanity to years of tribulation. Over the past ten years, the Left Behind series, a set of apocalyptic thrillers telling the story of those left on earth after the sudden disappearance – or “rapturing” – of millions of born again Christians, have sold over 60 million copies. Now there is even a children’s version of these stories which warns Jewish children that damnation is the future of those who do not convert; it already has sold over 10 million copies. The consumers of these stories are unmoved by warnings that, for example, particular foreign policy initiatives might provoke a Holy War between Christians and Muslims; to the contrary, they welcome the prospect of such a war, giving new meaning to the phrase “bring it on.”
It is interesting – and paradoxical – that those who engage in theological politics frequently care less about the theology than about the politics. Such is the allure of political power and the possibility of affecting the national social agenda that many of the leading architects of this brand of politics are willing to lay aside centuries of theological differences to rally together in opposition to abortion, stem cell research, or the cause du jour. As Alan Wolfe wrote in his 1998 book One Nation, After All, “The theological differences between conservative Catholics and Protestants that created five hundred years of conflict and violence have been superseded by political agreement.” Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has said, “I’ve got more in common with Pope John Paul II than I do with Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.”
Benjamin Franklin once observed: “The way to see by faith is to shut the eyes of reason.” And John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1815: “The question before the human race is whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule by fictitious miracles?” Today, the linkage of theology to politics is interdenominational. The willingness to overlook fundamental theological differences in order to mobilize theological politics has introduced a virulent dogmatism to the public sphere. As Bill Moyers has put it, “Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality.
When ideology and theology couple, their offspring are not always bad, but they are always blind. And there is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.”
Put another way, we are experiencing what Garry Wills has described as “the death of the Enlightenment” – or at least a movement away from the kind of informed public discourse the Enlightenment implies. Wills reports that when he recently asked the Dalai Lama what he would do to change Tibet if he could return there, his answer was simple: “He said that he would disestablish his religion, since America is the proper model.” Asked if a pluralistic society were possible without the Enlightenment, the Dalai Lama said: “That’s the problem.” As Wills recalls, “He seemed to envy America its Enlightenment heritage.” My fear is that, with the growth of the kind of dogmatism I describe as theological politics, we risk losing that heritage.
Former Senator John Danforth, a minister, reflected his own version of this concern when he wrote:
In the decade since I left the Senate, American politics has been characterized by two phenomena: the increased activism of the Christian right, especially in the Republican Party, and the collapse of bipartisan collegiality. I do not think it is a stretch to suggest a relationship between the two. To assert that I am on God’s side and you are not, that only I know God’s will, and that I will use the power of government to advance my understanding of God’s kingdom is certain to produce hostility.
I see serious danger if we are unable to engage and integrate persons of faith into meaningful and mutually respectful discourse in a pluralistic society. I welcome as fellow citizens in the political realm even those who, in my view, worship a savagely reductive God unworthy of the world’s complexity; but I am afraid we are playing out the consequences of an unwillingness among many “believing” Americans to accept the offered invitation.
The Race to the Bottom in Civil Discourse
The situation we face is even more dangerous if the dogmatism of theological politics combines with a more general – and more secular – form of dogmatism to infect civil discourse broadly.
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?
There is more cause for concern. Across the board, there is powerful evidence that in our cacophonous, confused and confusing world of information, the attention span of Americans is shrinking. Hyperstimulation is the order of the day. And, as our national attention span and appetite for nuance has been shrinking, those who provide information to us on the happenings and issues of the day have responded to our tastes. The distinction between news and entertainment has blurred. Journalism and the media generally – led by changes in the way television reports and evaluates news – have become increasingly bipolar, juxtaposing extreme viewpoints that offer much argument and little analysis. We have created a coliseum culture that reduces discourse to gladiatorial combat. Viewpoints are caricatured in their most absolute form, with moderated, nuanced, or mixed positions given little or no voice. Propositions incapable of simple explanation in catchy, easily labeled phrases are ignored.
This atomization and polarization have been exacerbated by the decline in the news audience share captured by the three major networks, which for decades at least tested against some standards the accuracy and completeness of the information we received, and which provided a common information template shared by Americans even of divergent views. Today, viewers have been drawn to niche channels, attractive to them precisely because they echo their preconceptions. A common canon of information has been supplanted by an echo chamber in which people pick a particular news source to fit their views, and their views then are validated and reinforced by the new information they receive, information tailored and targeted for them – and untested for its accuracy against any meaningful standard.
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. We have moved far from the Athenian ideal of participatory, dialogic democracy. This led Fortune’s Matt Miller to write:
Is it possible in America today to convince anyone of anything he doesn’t already believe? If so, are there enough places where this mingling of minds occurs to sustain a democracy? The signs are not good. 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.
So in our campaigns we are offered what are advertised as candidate debates, which actually turn into televised opportunities to state and restate a simple, preset message and to compete for the most memorable line – regardless of what an opponent has said, or even what question has been asked. Candidates are coached to convey their case, often a blunt and basic one, tethering it as loosely as possible to the arguments around them. They are told to avoid at any cost actually answering certain questions, those requiring detailed explanation or the discussion of solutions which, though beneficial in the long run, impose some sacrifice by the voters.
Consider just the concrete example offered by this past year’s primary and presidential debates in the United States. In the primaries, an initial field of ten Democratic candidates participated in debates where each candidate got a total of less than nine minutes to speak. In the first of these debates, we heard from John Edwards, the eventual Vice Presidential nominee, that the core issue of his campaign would be trade, and he set out three simple points: he came from a mill town, the jobs at the mill where his father once worked had been lost on fair trade, and he did not vote for NAFTA. In every debate thereafter, he repeated the same three points. At no point were the ideas developed further, and there was no sign of the iterative process that characterizes genuine debate. This was as much the fault of the process as of the candidate. Indeed, in the more serious context of a discussion with the editorial board of the New York Times, Senator Edwards did offer a much more nuanced view of his position, volunteering that he would not repeal NAFTA and conceding that there was no real capacity to end, even if policy might diminish, the outsourcing of American jobs, which he regularly condemned. But few in the public heard or ever came to know of even these basic, next level elaborations of the Senator’s positions.
There are, of course, venues like editorial board discussions where thoughtfulness often is appreciated and can thrive, and there are instances where political and civic leaders have been willing to use them. Too many times, however, the willingness to address complex issues in nuanced ways is caricatured as indecisiveness and weakness, while those who assertively offer simplistic slogans are rewarded for their character and strength.
This general trend toward atomized, abbreviated and dysfunctional civil discourse was observable before September 11, 2001. There is no doubt, however, that the events of that day and the collective anxiety that followed have generated an even greater appetite for simple answers and an even harder resistance to nuance and complexity. Our high-anxiety society is heightened constantly, everywhere we look, from security lines at airports to metal detectors at public events – all in service of a zero-tolerance attitude in the area of terrorism which contrasts sharply with the approach we take to automobile and gun safety, health threats like cancer or any number of other dangers which at least so far have taken far more lives. Still, whatever its causes or logic, our pervasive anxiety motivates a larger and larger part of the body politic to yearn for certainty and easy solutions. For more and more of us, simple answers seem to offer the promise of a return to a happier, less complex time. And this yearning widens still more the ambit and appeal of dogmatism, allowing it to become the playground of demagogues and ideologues.
Now more than ever, the combination of forces I have described, with their concomitant impact on the quality of civil discourse, has coalesced to impoverish conversation in the public square just when we most need nuanced answers to complex challenges. Now more than ever we need leaders who will work together to address the complex nature of our increasingly interdependent and matrixed world, leaders who advance policies that call the public to a willingness to make short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. We need more than ever serious public discourse; yet now more than ever, powerful forces are undermining our ability to engage in such discourse.
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?” It will take knowledge and wisdom more than data and information to resolve the problems of our global and local society. And civic discourse must generate, identify, and value the knowledgeable and the wise. It is not doing so today – and too often, not even trying to do so.
The Exacerbating Bipolarity of American Politics
Albert Hirschman describes the core of his wonderful book, The Rhetoric of Reaction, as “a concern over the massive, stubborn and exasperating otherness of others.” To explicate that phrase, he offers (in 1991!) the following (which easily could have been written as cogent commentary on America’s 2004 “red and blue” presidential election):
The unsettling experience of being shut off, not just from opinions, but from the entire life experience of large numbers of one’s contemporaries is actually typical of modern democratic societies. In these days of universal celebration of the democratic model, it may seem churlish to dwell on deficiencies in the functioning of Western democracies. But it is precisely the spectacular and exhilarating crumbling of certain walls that calls attention to those that remain intact or to rifts that deepen. Among them there is one that can frequently be found in the more advanced democracies: the systematic lack of communication between groups of citizens, such as liberals and conservatives, progressives and reactionaries. The resulting separateness of these large groups from one another seems more worrisome to me than the isolation of anomic individuals in “mass society” of which sociologists have made so much. Curiously, the very stability and proper functioning of a well-ordered democratic society depend on its citizens arraying themselves in a few major (ideally two) clearly defined groups holding different opinions on basic policy issues. It can easily happen then that these groups become walled off from each other – in this sense democracy continuously generates its own walls. As the process feeds on itself, each group will at some point ask about the other, in utter puzzlement and often with mutual revulsion, “How did they get to be that way?”
The growth of dogmatism – whether born of theological politics or a more secular allergy to complexity and nuance – is an enormously significant part of the American political landscape, but it is not the only feature of that landscape. Hirschman sets the stage for the point: the present structure of our two-party political system itself is bipolar and creates the possibility, the likelihood, that the shift of a small number of voters one way or the other on an issue can yield large policy consequences. Whatever their chosen hue, if red means Republican and blue means Democrat, when American voters cast their ballots, they must pick red or blue even if they themselves are violet. When this is the forced choice, Americans divide as close to evenly as can be imagined – by margins of 2% or less. This apparently neat division of the body politic can be read different ways, depending on the unmeasured intensity of division between the five, ten, or twenty percent of voters willing to switch across the divide. Nonetheless, however complex and variable the overlapping consensus might be, the very fact that the divide in the electorate is so close affects behavior in several ways.
First, at least at the national level, political leaders participate in the public discourse defensively – that is, they worry about expressing a provocative thought at the wrong time or uttering a disastrous slip of the tongue, especially with cameras ever present to capture the controversial statement or the gaffe. The danger, of course, especially given the trend towards dogmatism I have described, is that our national political conversations will become more and more carefully scrubbed, driven by focus group tested advertising campaigns, with the candidates playing the role of tightly scripted salesmen for the products the focus groups say they want.
Second, in such a context, policymakers and candidates often incline even in private professional conversation toward stating positions in simplistic and extreme terms so as to avoid conceding ground as they wrestle with each other for public positioning and ultimate outcomes. Because the introduction of nuance and complexity or a suggestion of conciliation or compromise will be characterized as weakness, they do not materialize. When polarization becomes the rule, participants feel little trust in each other, have less faith in the willingness of others to listen, and constantly fear being caricatured as weak or indecisive. Thus, just as political discourse has bred a coliseum culture, so also the governing process has become gladiatorial. The result: a lamentable decline in the willingness of our political leaders to engage in honest, open, and probing discourse in search of public policy solutions to the most vexing issues of the day.
Third, where the consequence of the binary choice is pure red or pure blue, the purest (that is, the most extreme) elements of red or blue care most intensely about its outcome – and, in the case of victory, they wield disproportionate power. This raises the stakes, especially for those at the red or blue extremes. And, of course, it creates a mutually reinforcing interaction with the dogmatism I have described, constantly entrenching and escalating it.
Fourth, in this high-stakes world, intense partisanship thrives, as the relatively minor shifts in the electorate create potentially seismic shifts in policy by virtue of the small margins between victory and defeat. Such an environment elevates the importance of party loyalty in the service of maintaining power, because in a bipolar nation the thought of reds taking over from the blues, or vice versa, is seen as apocalyptically significant, one way or the other. The consequent insistence on fidelity fertilizes dogmatism. And the emphasis on party loyalty breeds the suppression and punishment of internal dissent within the party and the proliferation of litmus test positions as a party creed – a dead weight on the richness, variety, and capacity of the public discourse.
This bipolarity now is embedded structurally in American political life. The House of Representatives offers a dramatic example, gerrymandered as it is in a way that ensures single party control (red or blue) of the vast majority of the seats. Safe districts, solidly red or blue, have yielded a House composed of members whose fealty most often is to the unshaded hue, and who have no interest in reaching across the aisle or finding common ground.
The recent move to eliminate the supermajority (60) requirement to end debate – that is, to halt a filibuster – in the Senate promises to exacerbate this tendency by moving the dial of government farther in the direction of pure majoritarianism (which, when mediated through state by state or district by district elections, presses individual candidates to the extremes). Important parts of the Constitutional system which has served America well were designed as countermajoritarian – most notable among them the courts (especially, but not exclusively, as guardians of the countermajoritarian Bill of Rights) and the Senate (which inherently favors small states). The supermajority requirement to close debate (on the Legislative agenda or nominees to the courts or executive branch) embodies this Senatorial brake on runaway majorities. This brake arguably is most suitable on the life appointment (beyond transient majorities) of judges (the enforcers of countermajoritarian principles). It is quite ironic that those allegedly most opposed to “judicial activism,” by curtailing the right of a substantial minority of the Senate to prevent judicial appointments viewed as extreme by one side or the other, unwittingly (or wittingly) have unleashed a process likely to mirror the movement to bipolarity we have seen in the House of Representatives, thus making judicial activism more likely as more extreme judicial appointments alternatively (over time) “advance” and “correct” prior rulings.
To the extent the close division in the American electorate leads those in power to replicate in other parts of our government what has happened in the House, the ironic effect will be that the actual “purpleness” of the blended political reality will generate more and more structural pressures toward the pure red and the pure blue. And, of course, political discourse is bound to suffer as the incentive to move to the middle declines and representatives of the middle disappear.
The University Itself in Danger
Later, I will suggest that 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 a coliseum culture, 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, Yale’s Jaroslav Pelikan recalls that the eleventh 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 ten 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 of junior 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, threats connected more specifically to the dogmatism I associated earlier with theological politics. There are those who would restrict free inquiry on campus or impose regulations requiring that the composition of the faculty conform to their notions of “balance.” Such pernicious measures often are complemented by aggressive, privately funded public relations and media campaigns attacking individual professors, departments, or schools for expressing what are deemed to be unacceptable views. 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, or even in the care of animals, while rejecting the opportunity, offered for example at NYU, to engage in a University-sponsored public forum on the value and ethics of animal experimentation. 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 (NIH) 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 one of 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.
Thus, members of Congress have attempted to exercise clearly inappropriate control of faculty research by embedding in Title VI of the Higher Education Act provisions governing federally funded centers for language and area studies. They propose establishing government advisory boards to ensure that the centers provide an appropriate array of political opinions. The invocation by the legislation’s sponsors of the need to encourage a diversity of viewpoints on campus is nothing more than a transparent mask for a concerted effort to constrain freedom of inquiry and create a governmentally approved set of views that must be represented in the faculty, obviously compromising the right and ability of scholars to shape their inquiry and take it wherever their research leads them.
Similar threats to the university already have been enshrined in law. One of the most pernicious is the Solomon Amendment, an attempt through law 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.
We have also seen too many examples of official intolerance toward foreign professors and students with immigration restrictions which bear no apparent relation to genuine security concerns, but which certainly hamper the capacity of American higher education to bring into the campus conversation the most talented individuals, regardless of their country of origin. Foreign nationals interested in coming to our universities face longer application periods, extensive background checks, and constant monitoring; many perfectly innocent professors and students effectively have been denied entry through burdensome and lengthy application procedures – and, astonishingly, some, after brief visits home, simply have been seeking to return to American universities where they already have spent months or even years. The result: the Institute of International Education now reports that the number of foreign nationals who teach and study in the United States has all but stagnated, reversing a half-century trend of increased enrollment, depleting our capacity to understand other cultures and diminishing the opportunity to have others understand us.
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.
In an earlier reflection, entitled “The University as Sanctuary,” I expanded in detail on some of the measures I believe are necessary to preserve robust dialogue on our campuses and to resist encroachment on freedom of inquiry, whether from external or internal forces. My friend of twenty-five years, Lee Bollinger, long a leading scholar of the First Amendment, has used his experiences as Columbia’s President to inform a powerful treatment of this subject, which he delivered as this year’s Cardozo Lecture for the Association of the Bar of the City of New York; and Jonathan Cole, Bolinger’s colleague and former Provost, offers incisive comments on the subject in the Spring issue of Daedalus. Later in this piece, I will set out several concrete suggestions both to combat the devolution of civil discourse generally and to safeguard dialogue within the walls of our universities. Let me focus now on the important role our universities can play as antidote to the calamitous trends I have observed.
The Research University as Counterforce
Those who understand the dangers I have highlighted – dangers both to civil discourse and to our research universities – likely also will appreciate that our research universities potentially can be a key to recreating the kind of public discourse our society requires and thereby maintaining the kind of civil society in which they themselves can thrive.
My colleague Dick 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.
Lee Bollinger put it well in his Cardozo Lecture: Of all the qualities of mind valued in the academic community I would say the most valued is that of having the imaginative range and the mental courage to take in, to explore, the full complexity of the subject. To set aside one’s pre-existing beliefs, to hold simultaneously in one’s mind multiple angles of seeing things, to actually allow yourself seemingly to believe another view as you consider it – these are the kind [of] intellectual qualities that characterize the very best faculty and students I have known that suffuse the academic atmosphere at its best. The stress is on seeing the difficulty of things, of being prepared to live closer than we are emotionally inclined to the harsh reality that we live steeped in ignorance and mystery, of being willing to undermine even our common sense for the possibility of seeing something hidden. To be sure, this kind of extreme openness of intellect is exceedingly difficult to master, and, of course, in a profound sense we never fully do. Because it runs counter to many of our natural impulses, it requires both daily exercise and a community of people dedicated to keeping it alive (which is why, I believe, universities as physical places will continue to thrive in a world of electronic communication).
In the special context of interreligious dialogue, my mentor, Ewert Cousins, has urged an analogous process he calls three stages of “dialogic dialogue.” To start with, those in the conversation “meet each other in an atmosphere of mutual understanding, ready to alter misconceptions about each other and eager to appreciate the values of the other.” Then, they “pass over into the consciousness of the other so that each can experience the other’s values from within the other’s perspective,” a process which often allows them to “discover values which are submerged or only inchoate in their own.” Finally, they move into a “creative union” and “the complexified form of consciousness that will be characteristic of the twenty-first century.” Clearly in civil discourse and secular contexts, this last step will be inappropriate or impossible at times because, even after the most generous hearing, certain positions will be seen rightly as simply wrong or inferior. Still, our civil discourse would be enriched by developing our capacities for listening and understanding and building bridges across intellectual divides.
Such a process of nuanced dialogue is not grounded in agnosticism or relativism about truth and objectivity. 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 his Daedalus piece:
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.
The university’s role here may be easier to achieve than most would assume. Our universities are (and have been since roughly the end of World War II) central institutions of society in ways that go beyond the metaphorical. A very high percentage of people now go to college; the notion of the university as model is all the more promising for this fact. Virtually anyone who assumes a leadership position anywhere in our society has experienced at least four years of higher education.
The Place of People of Faith in the Dialogue
Unlike dogmatism, religion clearly has a place within the university. My NYU colleague Thomas Bender puts it this way:
Religion is a part of the whole make-up of an individual, and along with those personal (private?) elements that shape a person, will have an impact that we cannot prevent and ought not to be prevented. Those unique qualities produce novel ideas. But as a separate basis for any kind of knowledge, religion has no place in the university because the university is built on different principles. Many lives will be lived in universities on a religious base, but that is not the work of the university.
I agree with him. But the question here is a different one: How do we stimulate in civil society the kind of rigorous, nuanced conversation which characterizes our universities at their best in a way that invites, entices, and embraces participation by people of faith? Bender’s warm acknowledgment that religion is a real and sometimes felicitous basis for the views of good people is a start; but we must go further.
Our universities and those within them must strive to extend the range of their intellectual engagement beyond an elite cognoscenti to include, or at least be open to, people of faith (among others, of course). One difficulty in achieving such inclusion is that many in universities and many people of faith see themselves as inherently at odds with each other (again, Hirschman’s “massive, stubborn and exasperational otherness of others”). William Stuntz, an Evangelical Christian and a law professor at Harvard, describes his experience as a citizen simultaneously of these two disparate worlds:
A lot of my church friends think universities represent the forces of darkness. Law schools – my corner of the academic world – are particularly suspect. A fellow singer in a church choir once asked me what I did for a living. When I told her, she said, A Christian lawyer? Isn’t that sort of like being a Christian prostitute? I mean, you can’t really do that, right? She wasn’t kidding. You hear the same kinds of comments running in the other direction. Some years ago a faculty colleague and I were talking about religion and politics, and this colleague said, You know, I think you’re the first Christian I’ve ever met who isn’t stupid. My professor friend wasn’t kidding either. I’ve had other conversations like these – albeit usually a little more tactful – on both sides, a dozen times over the years. Maybe two dozen. People in each of these two worlds find the other frightening, and appalling.
I believe that people of learning and people of faith can and must talk to each other. Like Professor Stuntz, I think of myself as both, and he and I are not alone within our research universities. In a university, which by its very nature is intellectually pluralistic, and in open, diverse, and democratic societies, faith has insights to contribute. But religious dogma cannot become a substitute for (or a screen through which) ideas or policies that bind others must pass. A university that regarded it as improper to study evolution because of a dogmatic belief that the world was created whole and entire at a specific point in time would not be a university at all.
In his 2003 Christmas sermon, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, poignantly explained how substituting dogma for reason could breed “fear of faith” among those (even those of faith) with differing views:
For all our talk about pluralism, many still feel in all kinds of ways uncomfortable when religion makes a visible difference in public life - so that in turn religious people may feel excluded or threatened if they are visibly identified as members of a community of faith. Discomfort about religion or about a particular religion may be the response of an educated liberal or, at the opposite extreme, the unthinking violence of an anti-Semite; it isn't easy to face the fact that sometimes the effects are similar for the believer. The fear of faith itself is part of what can breed fear in a vulnerable or minority community, of whatever tradition. And before we rise up and angrily deplore this, it's worth pausing to ask just why faith provokes such a passionate protectiveness. Historically, the answer is, alas, that religious faith has too often been the language of the powerful, the excuse for oppression, the alibi for atrocity. It has appeared as itself intolerant of difference (hence the legacy of anti-Semitism), as a campaigning, aggressive force for uniformity, as a self-defensive and often corrupt set of institutions indifferent to basic human welfare. That's a legacy that dies hard, however much we might want to protest that it is far from the whole picture. And it’s given new life by the threat of terror carried out in the name of a religion - even when representatives of that religion at every level roundly condemn such action as incompatible with faith.
Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, a devout Catholic and a thoughtful political leader, has applied this analysis to events in America today:
The President says he is opposed to abortion and the taking of stem cells from embryos because human life begins at conception. But John Marburger, the President’s authority on bioethics, tells us that the President sees this as a “sacred” issue, and not a scientific one. So Marburger has no science-based answer to offer. Aren’t the people of this nation who do not share the president’s religious views on what is “sacred” entitled to reasons for denying the benefits of stem cells that are based on science and not just his personal religious commitments?
Of course, in attempting to defend pluralism, we might go so far as to drive the “faithful” from the dialogue. This is an enduring danger. That, too, is not a healthy condition.
In McDaniel v. Paty, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a Tennessee statute – imagine Tennessee passing this law today - forbidding a member of the clergy from serving in the state legislature was unconstitutional, precisely because the “government may not … question whether legislative actions stem from religious conviction.” In effect, banning a minister from serving in government for no other reason than that he is visibly a person of faith is as dogmatic as prohibiting stem cell research without presenting any evidence other than the religion of the official doing the banning.
As people of faith enter the public square, it is reasonable to ask that they participate in that square in a way that honors its commitment to reasoned engagement and, indeed, borrows from the conception of rigorous dialogue that defines our universities. There is no reason to believe that people of faith are incapable of such rigor. Indeed, Professor Stuntz suggests that such inquiry is deeply consistent with the faith even of some of America’s most conservative Christians:
Evangelicals would benefit greatly from the love of argument that pervades universities. The “scandal of the evangelical mind” – the title of a wonderful book by evangelical author and professor Mark Noll – isn’t that evangelicals aren’t smart or don’t love ideas. They are, and they do. No, the real scandal is the lack of tough, hard questioning to test those ideas. Christians believe in a God-Man who called himself (among other things) “the Truth.” Truth-seeking, testing beliefs with tough-minded questions and arguments, is a deeply Christian enterprise. Evangelical churches should be swimming in it. Too few are.
In an open and pluralistic society, arguments in the public dialogue must be based on knowledge or reason and subject to inquiry, analysis and testing. The dialogue must be multilayered, iterative, and extended. Therefore, while public officials may begin in a blended position which incorporates religious doctrines inter alia, they have an obligation to present and defend their viewpoints on nonreligious grounds. And if upon examination those nonreligious grounds lose their persuasive force in public discourse – because extending them convincingly is impossible and simply reasserting them is insufficient, then the official has no cognizable rationale for his or her position. Even in the heart of the religious sphere, where dogma reigns most powerfully, a commitment to doctrine need not and must not defeat the commitment to tolerance. As the evangelical leader Robert Schuller put it: “What upsets me about religious leaders of all faiths is that they talk like they know it all, and anybody who doesn’t agree with them is a heretic.”
Let me illustrate this by reviewing a Supreme Court case on which I worked, one involving an Alabama statute that ultimately was declared unconstitutional. The Alabama legislature had passed a law mandating that whenever evolution was taught in a public high school, that school had to teach creation science as well, which entailed teaching that the world began through the act of a creator. To me, the fundamental distinction in the case, a clear divide that could not be crossed, was between a theory of beginnings and a theory of development. As the name “creation science” implies, a theory of beginnings posits that the world came into being through the acts of a Creator, a proposition not open to scientific refutation, validation, or testing. On the other hand, a theory of development treats the manner in which the universe moved forward after the first instance of its existence. Evolution is such a theory and, as are all theories of development, it is subject to being tested. To the extent that the term “creation science” bracketed the desire of its proponents to question the theory of evolution, they were perfectly free to seek to persuade (and through appropriate channels, mandate) public school teachers to include their evidence in the curriculum. Thus, for example, archaeological proof of a great flood consistent with parts of the Bible and arguably inconsistent with some versions of evolution theory would be acceptable because it could be questioned or debated on the basis of knowable facts – and the critical condition is that it be open to debate; on the other hand, a faith- based assertion that God was the cause of the flood would be unacceptable. Since the essence of the “creation science” movement was an untestable theory of beginnings, introducing it into the public school curriculum violated the American principle separating church and state.
In the end, dogma and the dogmatic reiteration of it cannot advance the search for answers in public debate. It is impossible to engage in conversation with a person who believes that because the Bible is inspired it must be understood literally in the way that person understands it, so that in the face of scientific evidence based on carbon dating that the world has existed for eons, he or she continually insists that it has existed for only 6000 years. That, in the truest sense, is the end of dialogue.
That having been said, no group, in academe or elsewhere, enjoys a monopoly on wisdom and knowledge. After the last American presidential election, some observers argued that the evangelical working class was manipulated to vote against its own interests by appeals to faith. To an extent, this may be true; but it is not a complete story, and it certainly is not an account that treats all people of faith fairly.
In the Long Island suburb of Islip outside New York City, I have cousins who are people of faith – and, who are well read and well informed, if not well educated in a formal sense. I know from experience that they are quite capable of debating me on issues like gun control, abortion, and the minimum wage. In the last election, they voted, perhaps unanimously, for George Bush – despite the fact that they were well aware that his economic policies shift wealth away from them. Why? Because they perceived something more important about George Bush that appealed to them. Voting by intuition clearly can be dangerous in a world where images are so powerfully manipulated. But while I am not certain which issues determined my cousins’ votes or what the mix of intuition and reason was, I do know this: if I’m going to ask my cousins to accept the obligation to consider issues that I raise, I cannot insist that they consider only my issues – framed only in my way. Indeed, red and blue instincts and positions can coexist side by side in the same person: when voters were offered ballot initiatives on raising the minimum wage in Nevada and Florida – both states that voted for George Bush – the initiatives passed by overwhelming margins. It is a mistake to assume that Bush voters did not understand their own interests; they may define their interests differently from the way some of us define them, or they may define them more generally.
It is useful to probe the roots of the growth of dogmatism, bipolarity, and dualistic certainty. I have highlighted some of the causes, but there are many more. For example, the reactionary moralistic/pious (as opposed to moral/ethical) public posturing that is reflected in dogmatic thinking is possible because of severe backlashes against the feminist movement, the free speech movement, and the fact that all countries are reacting to the influx of new immigrants and dealing with a diversity that has heretofore been mostly an American phenomenon. Many yearn for simple solutions to the economic setbacks they are fearing or experiencing; our children may not do as well as we have. They harbor deep worries about the moral behavior of leaders in our government, our corporations, and even our churches. Parents are worried about what is happening to our youth. An abundance of stimuli (including many I have not discussed) inspire and imbed attitudes, positions, and actions of our fellow citizens. We make a huge mistake in not understanding the often reasonable forces that motivate people to do what they do.
We have to be wary of discounting the norms and values of others. We must begin to examine how the positions we take and the way we express them may affect the ability and willingness of others to engage us. The abstract principle carried relentlessly to the extreme can excite those who proclaim that they are advancing tolerance and openness – even as it causes people of good will to opt out of dialogue. Thus, perhaps it is the case that opposing a moment of silence at the start of the school day – or insisting that “Merry Christmas” be replaced with “Happy Holidays” will achieve little other than symbolic victory and, more importantly, a feeling among those who care deeply about religion that they are disrespected and unwelcome in the dialogue.
The extirpation from the world of the symbols that affront the purist – viewed from the perspective of the person who experiences the symbol in a positive and powerful way – can be deeply hurtful. Symbolic politics, by its nature, encompasses terrain – intellectual, artistic, or otherwise – that is meaningful from at least two directions. Before an advocate on one side pushes a principle to an extreme which produces little, if any, concrete gain, the collateral cost of the defeat thrust on others must be calculated. I fear that, in an area about which I care deeply, those who seek (as I do) to safeguard aggressively the separation of church and state sometimes overvalue symbolic victories and fail to account adequately for the sense of alienation that such victories can bring to our fellow citizens of faith – provoking them to lose any sense of confidence in our good will. The resulting picture is stark: without adding a single meaningful brick to the wall separating church and state, an unscalable wall of separation is erected between fellow citizens. To couch our arguments simply in terms of symbolic affront or an abstract point without regard for the sensitivity of others can actually divide society, can threaten important and concrete goals, and is antithetical to open and mutually respectful civic discourse.
So while we must resist dogmatism, we also must reject the simplistic conclusion that there is no room for religion in the public sphere. The separation of church and state is not the same as the exile of religion from society. To cite one of the greatest examples of the last century in the United States, the Civil Rights Movement, was led by ministers.
We have to be humble in our assertions of what we know; we must not be dismissive of partners in the dialogue simply because we do not share their beliefs. At least in the best universities, this humility comes naturally. It is in this way that I believe the university can model the kind of conversation that I hope can be emulated in civil discourse. And it is through the university that we must try, for our whole society, to find pathways and structures that will inculcate a more generous understanding of the “other” and appropriate vehicles for conversation.
The arts are an ancient and modern example of this ideal – and a classic device for comprehension in contexts where cognitive listening is hard to achieve. In his essay, “The Culture of Democracy,” Peter Sellars argues: “Greek theatre was a place where what was not allowed to be spoken in public was spoken, but spoken through dance, through music, through poetry.” The first step in democracy, he recalls the Greeks believing, was “to learn to listen.”
A more contemporary example is my NYU colleague Anna Deavere Smith’s innovative work with the drama of conflict, where she is developing what I call a “theater of listening.” For her one-woman play “Fires in the Mirror,” Anna went into the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn after the 1991 riots there, interviewed 40 people, edited their words and then played the parts for all of them, from the newsstand proprietor to civil rights activist Al Sharpton. One Sunday afternoon performance at NYU’s Law School was followed by a discussion among our criminal law faculty, one of whom had conducted the investigation of the riots for the governor of New York. He volunteered a remarkable view of the impact of Anna’s play on him. As he put it, although he had interviewed the people that Anna portrayed and literally had written down most of the words that she had said, he had not heard some of them in a way that enabled him to grasp the true character of what they were saying until that afternoon. Why? Because Anna had presented herself as the vehicle and had bonded with the audience in a way that allowed her, in channeling the words of controversial characters like Al Sharpton, to be a pure vessel for their thoughts. The audience heard his words coming from the mouth of a person they had come to respect. In other words, an increased capacity to listen – facilitated by the arts – offered a new way to understand.
Humility – a relatively unknown virtue in America – also will help. And all of this can be nurtured within the university as a model for and a witness to the wider society.
But there is still more that we within the great universities can do. Let me offer a few modest suggestions.
In our long-standing role as social critics and agents of the search for knowledge, we can join with courageous civic leaders from across the political spectrum to call the public and those who seek their attention and votes to a higher plane of discourse. To this end, I believe that we should form a group of university and civic leaders – committed to advance the quality of civic discourse, both by creating venues and structures for it and by responding in ways that invoke praise or shame as a reward or sanction for public figures who elevate or denigrate the discourse. For example, this group (which I tentatively call the Discourse Coalition) might sponsor prolonged multimedia “conversations” on topics of importance, dialogues that would press an iterative and progressively deepening treatment of the subject from multiple viewpoints. Or the Coalition could issue periodically a “top ten list” of public figures who contribute to or detract from serious public discussion; the release, in the spirit of dialogue, could be accompanied by a multimedia presentation and examination of the persons listed, good or bad (even those canonized by the Catholic Church must submit to the Devil’s Advocate).
Next, the Coalition could sponsor an annual conclave of experts and nonexperts ready to engage in public and iterative conversation on a specific issue. Experts would be there as a resource, but at the heart of the conversation would be well informed, intelligent citizens comfortable with the process of a gradually deepening exchange of ideas. The session could convene at different times over a period of weeks or months, and here again publicly and in a multimedia way. As such, it would provide both a model of public conversation and a public refutation of more simplistic appositions of the coliseum culture.
We also must encourage the trend, already robust on the best of our campuses, to engage our faculties (from the arts and sciences to the professional schools) with the challenges of contemporary life. As Aristotle noted, we become virtuous by practicing virtue, by acting, doing, and not just reflecting or knowing. When higher education adopted the German model, separating knowing and doing, something important was lost. It is undeniable that nowhere is knowledge and understanding deepened as much as it is in the work of great research faculties; overtly and self-consciously connecting such work to the public conversation would go far to address the dangers I see.
In this spirit, for example, NYU already has begun investigating several major initiatives. Our Department of Philosophy has proposed the creation of a Center for Philosophical Research and its Applications, which would harness the powerful methods of philosophy and the formidable talents of leading philosophers and bring them to bear on a wider array of issues than is currently the case; in creating the center, the Department hopes to expand the horizons of philosophy, but without any compromise of rigor and clarity, which are the discipline’s greatest strengths. At the same time, a new Center for Experimental Social Science will conduct controlled laboratory experiments drawing on interdisciplinary research in economics, psychology, and political science to address a diverse range of social issues and produce tangible, tested results that can have a direct impact on our understanding of how people make decisions and how social institutions function; the result will be a body of real-world solutions to real world problems. Researchers at the Center already are working with a number of companies and institutions on questions such as: Is there a better way to allocate baseball players in the free- agent draft? Why do Americans save so little? What causes a financial panic or herd behavior in general? Why do so many Americans distrust their government? These two initiatives only foreshadow what we hope will be a collection of Institutes, addressing great issues by using the scholarly product of a great faculty, scholarship developed under the rigorous standards of the academy, to generate interesting solutions – in short, combining the capacities of a great research university with the practical experience of leaders in a field in a manner that yields outcomes and makes a difference.
All of us must create structures to foster and model transparently on our campuses the contest of ideas that should be at the core of what we and society should do. Of course, much of what already occurs on our campuses manifests precisely what we seek on a wider stage; we must showcase this more visibly, perhaps by specially designated faculty colloquia or simply more aggressive publication of events, with more frequent invitations to the public (directly or through the media) to join us.
We can – and I would say, must – go beyond what we are doing now to put a special emphasis on imprinting in the intellectual and social DNA of the wonderful young people who populate our best undergraduate institutions the habit of informed engagement in civil discourse. To this end, we must make debate and civic engagement central to the undergraduate experience at our universities. We must do more than help our students to explore complex issues. They must learn how to formulate and defend their positions on those issues – to become concerned and involved members of our community. It is our responsibility to create on campus a culture that celebrates complex conversations in every form – a “Socratic” community that will motivate virtually all our students to learn the skills of reasoned argument and debate: presenting a position, listening to others’ positions, and extending (deepening) the exchange with pointed responses. We must help students understand how to reach a reasoned consensus or at least have opposing sides find new clarity about their differences.
But it begins with our students. Engaged civil discourse must become a fulcrum of the undergraduate experience. Every undergraduate must come to value a culture of dialogue and debate. Students must have their assumptions tested, their reasoning sharpened, and their motivation to be active and informed citizens galvanized by a faculty and ultimately peers familiar with and committed to this ideal.
As we look toward the future of civil society, we can choose nihilism or hope. As a person of religion and a citizen of the university, I choose hope – as an act of faith and intellect.
The power of listening to promote thoughtful, nuanced dialogue is one of the many capacities we must nurture to advance openness of thought; the alternative is continued movement across society toward the extremes. In all this, the role of the university is key. Our century may well be a race between the university and the madrass. So what I described earlier as my two selves come back together in a place where the hopeful concept of a coming Second Axial Age merges with the essential mission of the research university.
I felt this possibility, with its potential wonderful outcomes, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11. After 9/11 there was – and might still be – an axial moment to be had – and not just for us, but for the world. We did not grasp it as we could have for complex reasons, including divisions precipitated and perpetuated by the march to war in Iraq and its aftermath – and including divisions of the sort I have described today. Still, I believe it is not too late. I am reminded of a remarkable history recounted by another NYU colleague, Professor Joan Connelly. In a wonderful piece written for her students after 9/11, she eloquently describes the parallels between classical Athens and what happened on 9/11 – what is still happening from London to the Middle East -- and what could happen in our future, if we make it so.
She recounts how the massed armed forces of the Persian Empire relentlessly swept southward through Greece in 480 BC, bearing down on Athens. The world’s most powerful autocracy was on the verge of enslaving the world’s first democracy. The Athenians withdrew from their city to fight on a more favorable battlefield. The Persian autocrat Xerxes ordered his forces into Athens to commit “the unthinkable”: they burned the Acropolis to the ground. In destroying the symbol of Athenian democracy, the shrines of the City’s faith and the literal height of Greek culture, the Persians not only sought to terrorize all who saw or heard of the event, but in a singular, stunning act to break the spirit of freedom and resistance. They made the city, peaceful and undefended, their battlefield.
Then at Salamis, in the next and decisive battle, the seminal naval engagement of ancient history, the vastly outnumbered but far more maneuverable Greeks, themselves fired by the enormity of the unspeakable onslaught on the Acropolis, annihilated the lumbering, heavy-hulled 700-ship fleet of the Persians, who withdrew north and then, after being defeated in a last land battle in central Greece, retreated into Asia, never to return. Xerxes, who had watched Salamis unfold from a golden throne on a hillside overlooking the sea, had already fled.
The first question the Athenians faced was what to do with the ruined heart of their city. In awe of the evil inflicted on it, as a monument and a reminder, and unable to agree on what to build, they left the site as it was year after year. It was not until three decades later that the vision and strength of Pericles summoned them to renew and realize their spirit in marble, raising up the Parthenon and other structures that nearly 2500 years later still stand not only as supreme examples of human art, but as timeless expressions of the democratic ideal.
For us today, the remembrance of that past offers hope and a path to the future. Professor Connelly writes: “It was following tragedy that the Greeks achieved their finest moment. Along with the Parthenon came a full flourishing of art, literature, theater, philosophy, religion” and with the continuing development of democracy, “the new and utterly revolutionary concept of self-sacrifice for the common good, newly hewn bond of altruism, a strong communal identity.”
So it can be for our generation. Out of the seeming dark spiral in which we find ourselves, even with its peril to society and the research enterprise, we can seize an opportunity. It is time to call ourselves and society to a higher plane. And in a pluralistic civil society, that plane is what makes us distinctly human – the plane of the mind. In recent years, what we have seen is a marginalization of seriousness; what we need is a marginalization of dogmatism. Key to achieving that move is the promotion, protection, and celebration of thoughtfulness.
Once we accept this as the solution, the role of the research university comes to the fore. We must resolve to marshal the resources of our academic and then our political leaders to press the agenda of discourse, beginning with attention to the quality of conversation within our universities and, then, deploying into civil discourse the standards and habits of inquiry that are so central to our campuses at their best.
There is much already in the public sphere on which to build – from thoughtful media leaders to the finest of our journals and newspapers, to those political leaders who take the public seriously and dare to defy the demand for simple, easy answers. Much work needs to be done. We must canvass the literature on discourse which already exists, highlighting the importance of the work and putting it stage center. And we must encourage efforts to diagnose the problems, testing the propositions I have advanced today, and offering and refining new methods to organize our public conversation. This cannot be a modest effort. The future of our universities is at stake; so, in a very real sense, is the viability and quality of our democracy.
In this new world we live in, study and shape, it is more urgent than ever for the research university to live out its obligation to live up to its own ideals. We have an obligation to become a force and a model – to offer a rebuke and an alternative to the coliseum culture. And society and its leaders have an obligation to appreciate and accentuate the role of the research university – to avoid interfering with it and to make it possible for it to carry out its mission – which is not just on campus – but in the wider realm of civic discourse.