A Call for Open-Mindedness or a Culture War Maneuver?

Peter Wood

The Association of American Colleges and Universities has just issued a 36-page report titled Engaging Diverse Viewpoints:  What is the Campus Climate for Perspective-Taking?   I 

learned about it yesterday when Allie Grasgreen, a reporter for Inside Higher Ed, called to canvas my opinion.  She quotes me (accurately) in the article, but when we talked I didn’t have much to go on.  Having read a little more of what the AAC&U has to say, I have some further thoughts.

The AAC&U website offers an excerpt of Engaging Diverse Viewpoints.  I am relying on that extract and I’ll begin with a complaint. If the AAC&U really wants to advance discussion of what it believes is an important policy idea, it ought to make its basic position paper freely available in electronic form.  To charge $25 for a pig-in-the-poke 36-page report is not a good way to disseminate your ideas. 

And the extract that AAC&U offers—merely the foreword to the report by AAC&U president Carol Geary Schneider—is a frustratingly vague pronouncement.  Having chewed on it a while, I’m inclined to save NAS’s $25. [After this article was published, I learned that the PDF is available for free online, although that's not apparent from the AAC&U website. Click here to download the PDF.] But let’s see what we can glean from President Schneider.

She starts out on a seemingly uncontroversial note.  “Perspective-taking” is “a fundamental dimension of liberal education.”  Why, yes, I believe it is.  Schneider’s definition of “perspective-taking,” however, is a bit peculiar:  “the ability to engage and learn from perspectives and experiences different from one’s own.”  The peculiarity here is the off-centeredness.  I would have thought that “perspective-taking” begins with learning how to form good perspectives of one’s own.  Schneider simply assumes “one’s own” already exist in some unproblematic way and that the real task is to hearken to other people’s perspectives. 

Let’s think about this.  Any of us who have taught freshmen are surely familiar with what usually happens when a teacher asks students near the beginning of a course for their views on the assigned readings.  For the most part, they have no “views” or “perspectives.”  They are waiting to be told what they should see.  A larger part of the instructor’s labor—if he is a good instructor—consists of dispelling this wait-and-see attitude on the part of the students and helping them achieve some fledgling ability to find a perspective of their own.  “Perspective-taking” in that sense begins with helping students sense the power of their own minds and their nascent sensibilities. 

Of course, that typically happens in the context of a class in which other students are engaged in much the same form of intellectual development.   A key pedagogical question is: in learning to form a perspective, on what should a student focus?   It isn’t an easy-to-answer question, and the answer may differ from discipline to discipline.  Some subjects require the student to master a considerable body of fact and technique before he can form a meaningful perspective.   This is broadly true in math and the natural sciences.  The humanities, by contrast, foreground a component of the student’s own perspective from the very beginning. 

Schneider’s definition of “perspective-taking” bypasses all of this and takes us immediately to the issue of how the student is to make sense of perspectives that differ from his own.  This isn’t a small step; it is a leap out over a bottomless chasm.  In what sense are we obligated as students, teachers, or people in general to assess the perspectives of others?  Surely that is a question that demands a very nuanced answer.   In the context of higher education especially, “perspectives” are not equal and interchangeable.  Some deserve respectful attention, some don’t.  Real education is in large part a matter of developing the discernment to tell which is which.  We may wish to take note of perspectives that are grounded in ignorance, viciousness, or vanity, but we aren’t obliged to “respect” such perspectives except in the sense that we respect the pothole that we are careful to avoid. 

In any case, Schneider’s foreword seems to aim right for the pothole.  It opens in the second paragraph with this wayward definition of “perspective-taking.”  And then it builds into a larger picture of what higher education should be and do to foster this mistaken ideal.

This odd appropriation of the term “perspective-taking,” of course, poses a hazard for the unwary critic, the way words like “diversity” and “inclusiveness” do:  it sounds like one thing but means another.  “Diversity” sounds like a way of describing (and perhaps welcoming) the play of human differences.  But in the hands of college officials, it means imposing group identity on individuals and using these markers to treat people differently.  To object to this blinkered idea of group identity is often enough to receive an astonished gasp as if one had repudiated actual human diversity.   There is clearly some rhetorical advantage for the proponents of identity politics to continue to muddle together the two very different ideas. 

I worry that the AAC&U is going down the same path with “perspective-taking.”  It sounds like one thing, (namely an open-minded approach to considering other people’s views on important matters) but seems to mean another (an emphasis on “difference” as itself the important thing.)   I may seem to be spinning a lot out of a single sentence in the report, but not really.  I am rather reading back into that sentence the rest of what Schneider has to say. 

The report appears on the surface to be a call for open-mindedness among college students.  Take other people’s views seriously.  Show “respect and empathy” in the face of disagreement.  Learn to work with others who have different views.  Who would disagree?  These principles seem so anodyne that one is hard put to imagine why the AAC&U would feel any urgency in asserting them.  In fact, the principles are so banal that the opinion survey bundled into the project came up with a finding that “93 percent of students and 97 percent of academic administrators, faculty and student life professionals agreed either ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ that preparing students to take seriously the perspectives of others should be an essential goal of a college education.”

But if I make it out correctly, Engaging Diverse Viewpoints is not an exercise in restating the blindingly obvious.  It is not really a call for open-mindedness on campus.  That is just the warm-up to a more strenuous and politically fraught program that attempts to enlist higher education in the cause of “civic engagement” and “intercultural learning.” 

These catchphrases too could mean a lot of different things.  We all want “civic engagement” as opposed to, say, selfish apathy or mindless consumerism.  We all want intercultural understanding as opposed to, say, a Kurtzian ethic of “Exterminate the brutes!” But the terms are ambiguous and are also in wide circulation as the rhetoric of people who have a particular political sensibility.  “Civic engagement” in that sense contrasts, for example, to those who favor individual rights and personal freedom.  And “intercultural understanding” in that sense contrasts, for example, to those who favor American exceptionalism or a muscular foreign policy. 

There is no reason why debate on such matters shouldn’t be part of the larger discussion about the role of higher education in our society.  But it is unsettling to think that, instead of an open discussion, we are going to have a preemptive occupation of the high ground by one side.  The AAU&P report is very nearly there.  Its possible subtext is, ‘We political liberals speak for civic engagement.  All you others—conservatives, libertarians, tea partiers, or whatever—stand for something less worthy.’

But that is only a possible subtext.  Perhaps the report itself firmly repudiates that reading.  On the other hand, I see hints in Schneider’s foreword that look an awful lot like the self- anointing language of the academic left.  “Community service,” for example, turns out to be one of the best ways to enhance perspective-taking.  Why community service?  I guess firsthand contact with people in need of community service is a good way to get outside the bubble of merely academic “perspectives.”  But isn’t a key purpose of college to gain the power of those academic perspectives?

“Perspective-taking” in the AAC&U account of things turns out not to mean arguing different intellectual positions on their merits in a search for the truth.  It seems rather a refashioning of identity politics.  The “perspectives” in question are not those of individuals but of “diverse cultures and experiences.”

The task to which the AAC&U report summons us is to raise our sights from higher education as glorified “job-training,” and to turn instead to a “public vision of the learning that matters most.”  I’m with them on that, but what kind of “public vision?”   The answer has a certain authoritarian chill: “civic learning, ethical learning, and intercultural learning” in service of the “Core Commitments.”  This culminates in:

We need to speak out in unison about democracy’s stake in empowering forms of civic learning and responsibility—with an emphasis on bridging differences and examining our own judgments and values in light of the views of others.

Speak out in unison?  What happened to all that respect for “difficult difference” and empathy for those who have a different perspective? 

Trying to make exact sense of some of Schneider’s profusions would be like trying to nail shingles on clouds.  I’ll forebear, but I do want to voice my apprehension.  When I encounter people in higher education who speak loftily about “civic learning and responsibility” and the need to empower students in this special civic-minded way,  they seldom seem to intend the kind of empowering that would speak to advocates of Second Amendment gun rights.  They aren’t so much concerned about the twisting of the First Amendment to force Christian groups to violate their religious precepts.  Their version of “civic learning” regards the Tenth Amendment as dead letter.  The typical version of “civic learning” on offer in higher education is rather a codification of identity politics and liberal-left consensus on the virtues of big government, in which individual rights are grounded not in nature or in God but in acts of legislation and jurisprudence.  The call for “responsibility” quickly devolves into an accusation that any serious dissent from this orthodoxy reflects ignorance, racism, sexism, or some other form of bigotry. 

In other words, I don’t hear in these terms in invitation to transcend the nation’s culture war, but rather an effort of one side to consolidate its grip on the university.  “Perspective-taking” comes to sound a lot like indoctrination in identity-politics-flavored relativism.  And academic relativism, we know by now, turns off its relativity the moment a culturally conservative idea pokes its head out. 

I grant this is mostly apprehension. The “extract” says one thing; the full report may say settle some of my concerns.  But I do register an air of falsity in the part that is freely accessible.  The use of the concept of “diverse viewpoints” as a rubric for elevating higher education’s role in promoting a certain kind of civics lesson hijacks the ideals of intellectual freedom, patient regard for the rights of others to present their cases, and common submission to the rules of rational inquiry and evidence. 

I agree with the AAC&U that that American higher education emphasizes job preparation too much and thoughtful participation in our free society too little.  But there are much better ways to mount this argument than the one the AAC&U has chosen.  

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