Universities must promote critical thinking

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Jon Meacham is one of the country’s foremost presidential historians, a writer and scholar whose work is widely respected. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his biography of Andrew Jackson – “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” – and is now a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. He is also a well-known speaker and expert whose calm and thoughtful manner appeals to those who value civility in public discourse.

None of this, however, was good enough for a group of conservative students at Samford University in Alabama. Opposing because Meacham gave a speech at a luncheon at Texas Planned Parenthood last month, they circulated a petition demanding that Meacham be uninvited as one of the speakers honoring the installation of a new president of ‘university. The Student Government Association passed a resolution with the same demand. The administration complied and revoked the invitation.

It’s embarrassing for Samford, a small Christian institution aspiring to be acclaimed by academics in my home state, which has so few. The new president, Dr Beck Taylor, gave in when he should have shown courage. In an announcement he published, Taylor acknowledged “the vital importance of free speech and civil speech in an academic community like Samford”. But he did not defend these values.

Among Samford’s conservative beliefs are a rigid opposition to abortion; it is the right of this private institution to instill this belief in its students. But Meacham was not ready to give a lecture on abortion. (He also didn’t speak about abortion at the Planned Parenthood luncheon.) The student petition acknowledged this: “While his plan for this conference is more focused on social injustices, the problem lies in beliefs. and the previous engagements of M. Meacham. They couldn’t bear to listen to a speaker whose unspoken beliefs differed from theirs.

This respect for dogmatic cohesion to a narrow set of beliefs pervades our politics, education and culture, destroying not only critical thinking but also the very diversity that should be the foundation of a pluralist democracy. This rigidity is particularly overwhelming when displayed by a college, which should be a model for a diversity of viewpoints. Students must constantly interact with stimulating ideas and learn to examine them. Some of these ideas that they will eventually accept, others that they will reject, but they will have learned the value of thinking about it. A strong democracy depends on citizens who can reason and think critically.

But growing illiberalism locks groups into silos that are increasingly defended. And the tendency to demand rigid adherence to dogma is not exclusive to political conservatives. The political liberals were also to blame.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently withdrew a prominent geophysicist from speaking out because he opposed affirmative action. Dorian Abbot was to speak on climate change, which he studied, not affirmative action. But several faculty members and students demanded that his invitation be revoked. It hardly shows a commitment to a diversity of thought – or scientific research, for that matter. (I’m writing this as an enthusiastic supporter of affirmative action in college hiring and admissions.)

To be clear, this is not a brief for liars, science deniers, or “alternative fact” propagators. This is not a plea for the clowns, charlatans or especially cynics – those in the know best – who insist that the last presidential election was stolen by massive electoral fraud. The US Constitution protects their right to spit lies, but they should never be given an important platform. The facts are not fungible.

But there is little hope for this nation’s democratic experience if so many of our citizens cannot stand hearing factual beliefs that are different from theirs. Shouldn’t each of us be able to inspect our opinions to see if they stand up to the scrutiny of reason? If you can’t bear to do this, there might be something suspicious at the heart of your beliefs.

Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2007. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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