I am delighted to announce that I am now a member of the Heterodox Academy. The Heterodox Academy is a relatively new organisation whose aim is to increase viewpoint diversity within academia. This is an issue I feel very strongly about, as in recent years I’ve seen amongst both students and staff, a noticeable decline in (and tolerance towards) differing viewpoints within higher education. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least because a university education is traditionally meant to introduce people to challenging and difficult ideas. Increasingly, it seemed to me, that an ‘industry’ that used to be known for tolerance towards different perspectives, was actually starting to dictate what we ‘were allowed’ to think.
The problem is that whenever group-think exists, not only can it become difficult to challenge the popular narrative, it can also be difficult to even conceive of alternative perspectives. While clearly, this is problematic in itself, it is particularly damaging when it occurs in education. How can we develop and learn if we are not subject to different viewpoints and perspectives? We also learn through making mistakes, so if we are never challenged or questioned, how can we update our thinking? Similarly, how can we function in our every-day lives (outwith academia) if we are unable to cope with unfamiliar, or different, viewpoints? We should be able to logically and rationally challenge viewpoints we disagree with, and we can only do that if we willing to engage with them.
While previously, being exposed to new knowledge was one of the primary aims of higher education, increasingly students are demanding that ideas (and people) they disagree with be shut down, rather than challenged with thoughtful and reasoned argument. Unfortunately, they don’t have good role models in this regard, as some of their professors are guilty of the same. Indeed, we only need to look at our public ‘role models’ in the form of our politicians and leaders to see that ability to deal civilly and coherently with opposing viewpoints is uncommon. Regardless of this, we should expect more from ‘educated’ people, and should aspire to better than the ‘Trumpian’ style of ‘debate’.
Ultimately, I feel that education is not only about learning, it should all be about developing our capacity to think, while also becoming well-balanced and productive citizens with strong and resilient personalities. We need students (and citizens) who are able to calmly and thoughtfully deal with challenges, rather than running away from them – or acting with anger and aggression. As should be clear now from what I’ve said, one of the ways to do this is to expose students to unfamiliar and disquieting ideas. Only then are they able to develop the tools to be able to deal with them healthily and productively.
In this post, I have focussed on the importance of viewpoint diversity for students in higher education, but it is also crucial for society as a whole. I will discuss this (probably at some length) at a later date, but the Heterodox Academy also have a very readable summary on their website. Please take some time to have a look at their resources, and consider giving them some support.