This is the last in a series of five guest posts we are publishing this week as the co-authors of a new book published by Oxford University Press titled “Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education.” The previous guest posts from this series can be found here, here, here, and here.
Anyone familiar with academic book publishing knows that it’s not the most rapid of industries. We completed writing this book in late 2019, with only small changes made during the subsequent editing and production in 2020.
A lot has changed since 2019. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the need for and value of examining the culture on campuses and considering ways in which it might be made more open to a culture of respectful discourse.
It would be naive not to also ask the question of what impact a book like this can have. It’s landing at a time when Covid-19 has forced most college students out of the classroom and onto Zoom, and when American society more broadly is facing not only a pandemic, but also an economic crisis and a high level of political polarization and uncertainty.
That said, campuses—or more precisely and importantly, the communities of people who collectively give life, energy, and meaning to colleges and universities, however scattered they might now be due to Covid-19—remain as vital a part of society as ever. And, as we wrote in the preface to the book, “we are confident that our call for a culture of more open discourse in higher education will remain relevant both during the pandemic and after it has passed.”
Here are the recommendations we provide in the book:
[1.] We believe that for courses on topics in which the content is related to and potentially shaped by sociopolitical considerations, faculty should be explicitly encouraged to keep in mind the value of providing their students the opportunity to engage with a wider range of political views than typically occurs today.
[2.] We urge all people with positions of authority in universities—a group that includes faculty, department chairs, deans, and university executives—to give greater thought to how their own public and private communications might inadvertently narrow the range of dialog deemed permissible. A dean who, in an official communication to faculty, expresses support for one particular side of a contentious current social or political issue that admits multiple reasonable perspectives in effect creates a social penalty for those who might want to voice support for a different view. At the very least, such expressions should be accompanied by a statement recognizing that others might reasonably hold a different view.
[3.] We explicitly oppose mandating any form of viewpoint diversity. We support an approach that encourages, but does not require, members of a campus community to engage with a broader set of views.
[4.] We encourage fostering an increased recognition of intellectual humility as integral to the promotion of viewpoint diversity, and more generally, to productive dialog. Without humility, the incentive to value other viewpoints vanishes.
[5.] We believe that university administrators and others in positions of power on campus should not let their decisions be driven by fear of social media mobs.
[6.] Students, faculty, and administrators alike should make it regular practice to personalize connections with people with whom they disagree.
[7.] We believe that members of campus communities should be encouraged to be more willing to accept a greater degree of discomfort in dialog than is currently the norm, opening the door to conversations that may at times be difficult, but that would in the long run enhance mutual understanding.
[8.] We recommend that universities revise their formal definitions of “diversity” to include viewpoint diversity—a step that would complement as opposed to compete with efforts to increase other types of diversity.