MICHAEL LIFFMAN: do our universities need more clear thinking?

 

The election result and the increasingly intolerant divisions in public discussion over recent years have led to the overdue recognition that Australia is indeed seeing a growing polarization in debate and policy development, and a disturbing tendency for people to think within their own ‘bubble’ and to fail to respect or even seek to understand the views of others.

Universities are one of the leading arenas in which this is being played out, as is being repeatedly pointed out in an overheated campaign by the Murdoch press against what it describes as higher education’s hostility to freedom of speech and thought.

Notwithstanding the manifestly politicized motivation of that attack, there is indeed a clear preference for progressive thought in our higher education institutions, and a tendency to ‘groupthink’ within academia.

However, while there may therefore be justification to the call for greater thought diversity within universities, that call is, it seems to me, exaggerating the syndrome it claims to observe, and, in so doing, prescribing excessive and possibly misdirected measures to correct it, while missing a more obvious and less controversial approach.

More pervasive, in my experience, than the occasional and sometimes misrepresented instances of censorship and ‘de-platforming’ cited by the coterie leading the attack, is a weakness in the way our universities equip students to properly respect, explore and debate wider perspectives than the dominant progressive one.

This is, of course, the real task our universities face in preparing their students for open and respectful engagement with complexity and difference.

(At the same time, however, it should not go unremarked that, paradoxically, the harshest critics of our universities often show no more respect for viewpoint diversity and respectful debate than those they oppose. Nor do they acknowledge that it may, in part, be the conclusions of the studies, research and critical thinking conducted within universities – and not simply bias – that leads to the progressive world views of so many academics and students.)

Without necessarily conceding the charges leveled against them by their harsher critics, a more fruitful approach, and one entirely consistent with the universities’ time-honoured role, and an effective defence against those charges, might be found in some of the approaches of the Heterodox Academy in the USA.

Established by influential (and – let it be noted – progressive) American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (shortly to visit Australia on a lecture tour) the Heterodox Academy invites universities to make a serious commitment to opinion diversity.

One of the approaches the Heterodox Academy offers is a short module it has developed for commencing students called the ‘Open Mind Platform’. It is not to belittle this to suggest that it is not all that different, albeit more sophisticated, than what those of us whose school days are long behind us recall as ‘clear thinking’ or occasionally ‘Rhetoric’: an exploration of logic, use of data, inquiry into ones’ own biases, and respect for the search for truth rather than victory over an opponent.

The Open Mind Platform –www.openmindplatform.org.au – is described by the Heterodox Academy as follows:

‘It takes students on a six-step journey, at the end of which they will be better able to live alongside—and learn from—fellow students who do not share their politics.

It’s flexible , taking no more than about three hours in total, and can be completed by individuals before they arrive on campus, presented in an orientation-week workshop, or expanded into a full semester course that students can take during their first year.’

Unlike some of the other more controversial and often politically motivated actions being urged on the universities, almost always from conservative quarters, there is nothing in the least contentious or partisan about this: on the contrary, offering it, or something similar, would be both true to the universities’ core mission, and a demonstration to their critics of their good faith in regards to opinion diversity.

Silence or defensiveness in the face of their critics will not serve universities well in the current hostile climate: far better to reaffirm and strengthen what they traditionally have been best at: genuine, reflective, open inquiry in search of understanding and – where it exists – truth.

Michael Liffman

(Adjunct Associate Professor Dr Michael Liffman works in the community and higher education sectors.)

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