Nouveau Relativism in Academe

Peter Wood

Learning to frame intelligent opinions is an indispensable part of higher education.  And learning to assess the opinions of others—fair-mindedly, respectfully, and at times decisively—is an indispensable wheel within the wheel.  We need to know what others think especially on matters that fall below the threshold of certainty.  Both the academic and the policy worlds got a sharp lesson in this last November when the “Climategate” emails revealed the skullduggery of some scientists who connived to prevent publication of views they regarded as mistaken.  That was a vivid instance of people who should have known better giving in to the temptation to overestimate the power of their own insights and to derogate rival views. 

The Climategate fiasco, built on false claims of “consensus” about global warming in the scientific community, springs to mind as a good reason to welcome the idea that colleges and universities ought to pay more attention to teaching students how to reconnoiter other people’s ideas and opinions.  What is the proper status of “opinion” in the university, as opposed to fact, established knowledge, theory, and belief?   Simply listing these words suggests layers of complication.  Higher education necessarily involves all these modes of knowing or thinking-you-know, and they are often tangled together.  Still, we usually acknowledge a distinction.  Opinions are what we hold when we cannot be sure.  It isn’t a matter of opinion that 2 + 2 = 4.  It is a matter of opinion that King Lear is a more profound play than Hamlet.   

We get into trouble when we confuse these matters.  And we are courting trouble when we exaggerate the provisional respect due to other people’s opinions and thereby lose sight of some more fundamental goals of liberal education.  Ideally, we teach students how to pursue truth, and where truth itself is unobtainable, to exercise the kind of discernment that separates the better-grounded views from the others.

These reflections are prompted by a report from a major academic organization that greatly exaggerates the importance in higher education of attending to other people’s opinions, or as the report phrases it, “perspective-taking.”  The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) two weeks ago issued a report calling for a new emphasis in college education on students learning to pay serious attention to views other than their own.   Engaging Diverse Viewpoints:  What Is the Campus Climate for Perspective-Taking?   It is based on a survey of 24,000 students and 9,000 “campus professionals.” The survey results dominated the coverage of the report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and elsewhere.  My response on NAS.org, “A Call for Open-Mindedness or a Culture War Maneuver?” went a different way.  I expressed skepticism about the AAC&U’s avowed purpose in calling for more “perspective-taking.”  While the report is framed as a call for open-mindedness, Engaging Diverse Viewpoints privileges a view of higher education favored by the political left. 

When I wrote, I had access only to a portion of the document.  Having now read all of it, I have a few further comments. They seem worth making in light of AAC&U’s broad influence in debates over the future of higher education in the United States.  The AAC&U is one of the voices of the higher education establishment.  Its program for promoting the “assessment” movement on campus, for example—the program called LEAP (“Liberal Education & America’s Promise”)—launched five years ago, is now installed at hundreds of colleges and has been formally adopted by the state systems of Wisconsin, Oregon, Virginia, California, and Utah.  

It wouldn’t be wise to assume that the AAC&U’s latest enthusiasm, “Perspective-Taking,” will simply fall harmlessly by the wayside.  The idea itself, moreover, is wholesome, at least if we take it at face value.   Virtually everyone who cares about higher education should be concerned that students learn to reckon with opinions and beliefs at odds with their own.  If that were really the central message of Engaging Diverse Viewpoints, the National Association of Scholars would be this moment extolling the report as a welcome corrective to decades of politically correct attitudinizing and suppression of intellectual debate on campus. 

Coreless Commitments

The wholesome side of the report, however, resides mostly in some declarations at the beginning.  It then slips into some seemingly benign assertions that deserve to be chewed over rather than swallowed whole.   The authors lay out the five “key dimensions of personal and social responsibility that form the crux of the [AAC&U’s] Core Commitments initiative.”  These are 

1. Striving for excellence: developing a strong work ethic and consciously doing one’s very best in all aspects of college,

2. Cultivating personal and academic integrity: recognizing and acting on a sense of honor, ranging from honesty in relationships to principled engagement with a formal academic honor code,

3. Contributing to a larger community: recognizing and acting on one’s responsibility to the educational community and the wider society, locally, nationally, and globally,

4. Taking seriously the perspectives of others: recognizing and acting on the obligation to inform one’s own judgment; engaging diverse and competing perspectives as a resource for learning, citizenship, and work, and

5. Developing competence in ethical and moral reasoning and action: developing ethical and moral reasoning.

More succinctly:  work hard, be honest, serve the community, respect others, and develop ethics.   Few would take exception to these as “dimensions of personal and social responsibility” for college students—or anyone else. 

But note what’s missing.  The list is, for example, dead silent on the search for truth.  Doesn’t that search have some place in a broad conception of the “dimensions of personal and social responsibility”?  Generations of scholars and moral thinkers have thought so.  And isn’t the search for truth a little more specific to the responsibilities of students as students than, say, “contributing to the larger community?”    Perhaps truth-seeking is lurking in the five “Core Commitments” as part of #1, in the phrase, “all aspects of college,” but that would be a very weak way to assert so fundamental a purpose.  By contrast, there is no such evasiveness when the AAC&U extols the importance of the “honor code” (#2). 

A little reflection brings into focus other seemingly prominent “dimensions of personal and social responsibility” germane to higher education that simply don’t make it into the AAC&U list.  What about the responsibility to distinguish between significant matters and trivialities?  What about the responsibility to use one’s time wisely?  What about the responsibility to be a good steward of money and to avoid or minimize debt?  And what about the responsibility for the student to strive for something higher and not succumb to the coarsening of life that is such a prominent part of most college “communities”? 

I would think every one of these missing items has a stronger claim to being a central issue of “personal and social responsibility” than, for example, the need (#3) to contribute to the larger community “nationally and globally.”  Symbolic gestures aside, very few students have the opportunity in college to make any meaningful contribution to the nation, let alone “the globe.”  But every student has important choices to make about truth-seeking, distinguishing significance from triviality, spending time wisely, managing money, and joining in or resisting the riotous side of life.  Students are often at risk of forfeiting the better part of their education by becoming lost in trivialities.  Students frequently squander their time, as we are reminded by this provocative chart, and the miseries entailed by running up credit card debt and student loans are self-evident.  The responsibility not to let college become a descent into drinking, casual sex, cynicism, and a dozen other forms of self-destruction may be vaguely implied by the AAC&U’s praise of “moral reasoning,” but if so, it is well-hidden.

The AAC&U’s five “Core Commitments” didn’t originate with Engaging Diverse Viewpoints.  The so-called “dimensions of personal and social responsibility” were adopted by the AAC&U well before the study on “perspective-taking” began.  The new report takes those “dimensions” as settled and builds from there.  What it builds on, however, is a view of higher education stripped of most of its intellectual character and a good deal of the actual peril that a student faces.   The “dimensions” are an antiseptic view of “responsibility” that sound more like the views of student affairs professionals abstracting from the things they care about:  the honor code, civic participation, etc.

So when the new report picks up with (#4) “Taking seriously the perspectives of others: recognizing and acting on the obligation to inform one’s own judgment; engaging diverse and competing perspectives as a resource for learning, citizenship, and work,” we are already a very long way from many of the serious issues at the center of higher education.  The coherence of the curriculum as a factor in teaching “personal and social responsibility” is off the table.  Ditto the rise of the college and university as places devoted to entertainment and distraction, rather than well-focused study. 

These silences might not much matter as much if the AAC&U’s report were not framed in such lustrous terms.  Engaging Diverse Viewpoints is a “signature initiative” of the organization; it “is designed to help campuses create learning environments in which all students reach for excellence.” 

This, in effect, elevates “perspective-taking” to an extraordinary level of importance in higher education.  As I pointed out in my earlier essay, “perspective-taking” in AAC&U lingo, is the act of recognizing and treating with respect other peoples’ opinions.  It bypasses the whole question of how the student learns to develop his own perspective, and it assumes that all perspectives are worthy of attention and respect. 

The body of the report does little to expand or explain the AAC&U’s views of why “perspective-taking” should be elevated to pride of place in creating “learning environments.”  Rather, the report is mostly a digest of the results of a large-scale survey, the Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory (PSRI).  Some of those results are indeed arresting, as when we learn that more than 40 percent of students did not “strongly agree” that their institution should focus on “taking seriously the perspectives of others.”   This is, of course, an ambiguous result.  Were the students who were diffident about or who rejected this premise wise to the dangers of mere perspectivism?  Or were they asserting that they had come to college to gain real knowledge rather than sit around and ponder each other’s views of Outcasts United

We learn along the way that “campus professionals” overwhelmingly (about 80 percent) think “perspective-taking” should be a campus priority, but just over 30 percent are satisfied that their campuses do it right.  Sixty-three percent of students arrive at college with the view that they respect perspectives that differ from their own.  By the time the students are seniors that number dips to 52.6 percent.  What accounts for the decline?  Are students who believe they respect differences at greater risk of dropping out of college?  Do ten percent of freshmen wise up to the reality that not all perspectives deserve respect?  Do ten percent become so politically correct that by the time they are seniors they are confident that some perspectives can be shunned?  Or, to the contrary, have ten percent of the students learned to see through the smoke of politically correct ideology itself? 

The questions are imponderable.  There is no way to tell from the AAC&U report what these numbers mean.

One startling finding was that some 60 percent of freshmen and 70 percent of seniors believed it is “unsafe” to hold unpopular views on campus.  Were the students exaggerating?  Seemingly not, since their view is echoed and amplified by the faculty and by student affairs professionals, who by a margin of almost 82 percent also thought it unsafe to hold unpopular views. 

Again, we don’t know exactly what this means.  “Unsafe” in what sense?  Do 70 percent of American college seniors fear physical violence if they are discovered holding unpopular views?  Or are they “unsafe” in the sense that they fear being criticized or cut off from easy relations with fellow students? 

The Age of Perspective

Engaging Diverse Viewpoints can be read as an act of introspection by the higher education establishment confronting the apparent failure of one of its root ideas.  The last fifty years might be fairly described as an Age of Perspective in higher education.  The humanities and the social sciences have been dominated by earnest efforts to take seriously ideas, positions, and beliefs that have no particular claim on our attention.  And there has been a loose willingness to create spaces within the university in which ideologies can flourish without having to debate or justify their premises.  Lying behind this is a view that human knowledge is so limited and indeterminate that it is generally best to keep an open mind toward all possibilities.  We are wiser to “take perspectives” than to come to rest on any one account of the way things are.  This view is typically relativist in character.  It assumes that what we know is relative to our social position and cultural background.  But it is a particular branch of relativism, since it quietly assumes we are all look at the same things and we just have different “perspectives.”  

It is handy to call this collection of attitudes “perspectivism,” but that requires a caveat or two.  Nietzsche developed a philosophical view often called perspectivism, and there are several branches of philosophy that carry variations of the label “perspectivalism.”  These efforts to think through the epistemology bear on what has happened in higher education, but I think rather indirectly.  The real roots of campus perspectivism  are less in philosophy than in the democratic leveling of mass higher education, which gives warrant to the idea that everything is more or less a matter of opinion and no one’s opinion is automatically better than anyone else’s. 

Perspectivism is a pretty flimsy basis for higher education, which requires, after all, that we learn to draw distinctions and, because as individuals we cannot know everything, that we defer to certain kinds of intellectual authority.  The modern university indeed maintains its focus on drawing distinctions and building authority, but it does so with a somewhat troubled conscience and hazy awareness that this essential work is at odds with the perspectivist ethos.   The result is a kind of truce.  Perspectivism is generous to those who agree to live within what it sees as its capacious boundaries.  It becomes agitated mainly when it encounters perspectives outside its zone of approved thought. 

An apt symbol of the perspectivism dominant on campus is the popularity in “common reading” programs of This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women.  When the National Association of Scholars compiled its list of these reading programs, we found This I Believe to be the most-assigned common reading in the country.  This I Believe is a two-volume collection of short manifestos (Instructions:  “write a few hundred words that express the core principles that guide your life”) originally prepared for a National Public Radio series, with a scattering of similar statements from the 1950s Edward  R. Murrow radio program of the same name.  

These essays are exercises in pure self-assertion.  Sarah Adams, an English professor at Olympic College leads volume one with her essays, “Be Cool to the Pizza Dude,” which extols the principle of humility and forgiveness towards those who work hard jobs for little money.  She rings variations on the pizza dude culminating in the declaration that, “I am the equal to all I meet because of the kindness in my heart.”  The two volumes are full of such little epiphanies, nearly all of them well-written and some quite memorable.  But while the This I Believe anthologies have some literary merit, we ought to be attentive to what it means that many colleges select them as core texts for college students.   This I Believe elevates personal conviction over thoughtful and informed weighing of alternatives and the search for knowledge.  What it teaches is, essentially, the centrality of self-assertion. 

That’s the campus Age of Perspective in a nutshell.  The problem for AAC&U is that this approach seems to leave so many contemporary students cold.  Students agree in overwhelming numbers that listening to other people’s perspectives has a legitimate place in higher education, but the students decline to elevate that act of listening to central importance, and worse, they don’t believe that their colleges actually follow through.   A campus awash in perspectivism paradoxically doesn’t seem especially open to dissenting perspectives. 

The AAC&U registers the student disenchantment with the Age of Perspective and concludes that what’s needed is:  more of the same.  The problem according to AAC&U president Carol Geary Schneider is that the liberal Core Commitments of higher education are being drowned out by students’ interest in “job training.”  What we need, in this account, is even more robust promotion of perspectivism. 

But just maybe the AAC&U has the wrong diagnosis.  Could the real problem be that “perspective-taking” presented as an end in itself breeds contempt for liberal learning?   Might students be telling us that they want their colleges to help to develop the capacity to tell good from bad arguments?  Might the solution be to restore the search for accuracy and truth to the center of the educational enterprise?  

The report eventually moves beyond statistics to what it calls “qualitative insights,” and when it does, it pretty much gives away the game.  If we were clinging to the idea that all this concern about “perspectives” was a way of extolling intellectual open-mindedness, we get cured of that illusion on page 17, where “perspective-taking” merges with the “diversity of the student body” in terms of racial and identity groups.  “Going to a college that has an ethnically and culturally diverse student body [helps me] appreciate what other people go through in their lives,” intones one student.  The report extols the value of classroom discussions that focus on “race, ethnicity, religion, spirituality, political perspectives, gender, and sexual orientation.”   Apparently, the AAC&U found little room for considering the kind of perspectives that arise when people reading hard books or weighing complex ideas draw divergent conclusions.  Instead, it circled back to the same old forms of “diversity” that through overemphasis have stifled much of the genuine intellectual freedom on campus. 

We get an extra helping of this ideology from the campus professionals who consider multicultural student groups, GLBT student programs, and diversity-themed housing as important means to “to help students appreciate different perspectives.”  There is more in this vein, and no hint that such pre-packaging might impede rather than encourage students to take the views of others seriously and respectfully.  Most students understand the difference between being invited into a conversation and being pressured to repeat an officially sanctioned view.  “Diversity and inclusiveness are part of the ethic of this place,” declares one administrator, who goes on to say the institution needs to “grow in our treatment of GLBT individuals.”  Well, maybe so, but it is hard to hear in declarations like this a willingness to treat with respect any students who have doubts about the official versions of “diversity,” “inclusiveness,” or homosexuality.  “Perspective-taking” turns out to have a generous component of, “any perspective is fine as long as it fits ours.” 

The report ends on an apprehensive note.  The authors observe that a large majority of students view their institutions as hypocrites on this matter as “only about one-third of students believed” that faculty and campus professionals truly advocate for educating students “about the importance of respecting diverse perspectives.”  Students see that the campus grown-ups talk about respecting differences but don’t actually do it.

The AAC&U greatly overestimates the importance of “perspective-taking” and neglects more central tasks of higher education.  But even if we take the goal at face value, the AAC&U report shows us that “perspective-taking” leaves us in the cul-de-sac of identity politics, with a large majority of students disenchanted.  The AAC&U’s proposed solution?    Is it time to reconsider the goal?  No.  From the perspective of this report, it is time to push the same old relativism even harder.

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