Academic Freedom isn’t what this Pamela Paul thinks it is

Opinion | Colleges Are Putting Their Futures at Risk – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Pamela Paul takes universities to task for failing to promote open ended inquiry and knowledge seeking in the editorial linked above. She blames misuses of academic freedom whereby academics short-cut inquiry on a rapid path to conviction, advocacy, and activism, generally of a left-wing sort. But Academic freedom isn’t quite what she thinks it is. Most of our professors are adjuncts, they are contractors hired to teach a course that won’t run without adequate enrollment. A professor who would prefer to eat and pay the rent can only teach what students are willing to sign up for. Open-ended inquiry requires patience, perseverance, and intellectual humility that is increasingly hard to find in our culture. Logic and critical thinking are hard. Too many people want the satisfaction of feeling they know what is right, and the quicker the better. Not so many people are interested in the hard work it takes to actually know what is right. So, the easy to comprehend melodrama of social justice sells with students. The patient hard work of learning how to reason well doesn’t.

Of course, we still advertise and give lip service to critical thinking. But then look at the class schedule at your local college and count the number of sections of courses in logic or critical thinking. Now compare that to the number of sections offered in sociology or cultural and ethnic studies. Social injustices are relatively easy to comprehend, and the naive inquirer has a much shorter path to the satisfaction of resolving doubts and justifying convictions.

None of this is to accuse my colleagues in the social sciences of left-wing political bias. The injustices protested on campus are typically grounded fact, and Pamela Paul does open-ended inquiry a disservice if she means to suggest that it needs to make room for contorted denial or rationalization of things like systemic racism. And that is pretty much what the countervailing political pressures are demanding. Ron Desantis isn’t demanding attentive fact-based open-minded inquiry on matters of race or LGBTQ issues. He is simply demanding that that academics not reach the conclusions such inquiry tend to reach. Either that or shut up.

Open-minded inquiry doesn’t place us under any obligation to entertain disingenuous both sides-ism. Open mindedness doesn’t require neutrality between competing views when some views are well supported by evidence and argument and others just aren’t. Open-mindedness requires that we be open to fairly evaluating the evidence and argument. When the evidence and argument clearly favor one among the competing views, we should have the degree of confidence warranted by the evidence and argument. This is often sufficient to settle the issue. When an issue is politicized in the broader culture and people on one end of the political spectrum don’t like the conclusions reached by a fair-minded evaluation of the evidence and argument, it’s not professors that are being politically biased. It’s the people that are having a hard time with the facts and the conclusions these support. We’ve seen this happen with climate change for decades. Now we see it happening with contemporary culture war issues like race and LGBTQ rights.

More perspectives on campus won’t fix this. At this point it would just ignite more conflict on campus. More focused and dedicated instruction in how to reach conclusions, how to analyze evidence, formulate and evaluate arguments, seriously entertain objections without begging the question, identify and filter out fallacies; all of this would help enormously. Now try to get your student to sign up for that class. Critical thinking is challenging. Your student might not get an A.

Higher education in the US is in a sorry state. We still do pretty good at STEM. Moneyed interests demand this, after all. But we are badly failing to prepare students for participation in a free and open society. Many competent professors are doing the best we can. But there is more to the problem. We are up against a culture of instant gratification where education is routinely approached with a consumer mindset, political polarization that undermines critical thinking about the most important issues we face, and debilitating anxiety among students who vaguely get that things are not well with the world. Who is to blame is not a pertinent question. There is plenty of that to go around.

This said, colleges and universities could do better. General education courses that focus deliberately on critical thinking skills, the skills required for patient, open-ended, open-minded inquiry, should not be in competition for enrollment with courses that offer satisfying conviction, even where this is warranted. Courses focuses on the methods of open-minded inquiry should be pre-requisites for the others. Courses like logic and critical thinking need to be supported by degree requirements. This is something colleges and universities could do. It would help enormously to restore the credibility of our institutions and it would better prepare our students for the sort of open-minded inquiry needed a free and open society.

Critical Thinking Note 30: It’s not about Buying and Selling

Arguments are commonly regarded as tools of persuasion. Seen this way, arguments are sales pitches for believing something. In our consumer society, we are all skilled at negotiating the constant onslaught of sales pitches. Our default is the hard no. Any of us would soon be broke without rejecting the vast majority of sales pitches. And yet, we buy often enough. Whether we buy, consider, or reject a sales pitch, we make this determination in reference to ourselves, what we want, what matters to us. We are passive in our mode as consumers. We accept the sales pitch, or we don’t. Perhaps we step back and do some research when the stakes are high. Sellers would generally prefer that we not. And typically, there is no need to reach beyond ourselves, to actively engage the world beyond our needs and wants. We know how to operate as customers, it’s a comfortable space for us denizens of late-stage capitalism. It also misses the point of argumentation.

When we treat arguments as tools of persuasion, our default stance is to resist persuasion. Persuasion, after all, feels like an assertion of someone else’s will, which we will naturally want to resist unless it aligns with our own will. In such self-referential assent or dissent, our will is engaged in reactive mode. But reaction is not the same thing as exercising agency.

Our general reluctance to change our minds about things is known as epistemic conservativism. Perhaps without a healthy dose of epistemic conservativism, we’d be changing our mind all the time and wind up confused (or confusing). A degree of epistemic conservatism can be a healthy thing. But it is healthy only when we are reluctant to give up beliefs that are themselves rigorously examined and well supported by evidence and argument. Otherwise, epistemic conservatism leads straight to confirmation bias, the tendency to endorse or reject arguments on the basis of how we already feel about the conclusion.

How are things different for the critical thinker? A distinguishing mark of the skilled critical thinker is that she treats arguments as instruments of inquiry rather than instruments of persuasion. An argument is a set of premises offered as a reason for thinking some conclusion is true. We should find good arguments persuasive simply because it’s good to believe things that are true. What is operative for the critical thinker, though, is inquiry, the active search for truth and understanding. Not the passive consumer’s role of being persuaded, or “buying” the conclusion. The critical thinker may still want others to find her arguments persuasive, but only if they are good arguments. For the critical thinker, the desire to persuade is conditional on the quality of her reasoning being good, not on her own will.

Critical thinkers aren’t just concerned with determining whether the conclusion of an argument is true. Rather they are more broadly concerned with what can be learned from the argument. This starts with aiming to understand the viewpoint embodied in the argument. We aren’t in a good position to evaluate and argument without first clearly understanding what it says. Beyond this, learning from arguments often takes the form of learning from our mistakes. When the critical thinker finds a flaw in an argument, she will straight way consider whether is signals a compelling countervailing argument, or whether that flaw points the way to a better argument. Whether the conclusion of an argument is true or false is not the primary concern for the critical thinker. The primary concern is to see how the argument can help us get closer to understanding and truth, even if this only amounts to recognizing that some line of argument is a dead end.

Critical thinking is not really about figuring out what views to “buy” or “not buy.” It’s about building a robust understanding of the world and each other. It’s about getting clear on all sorts of issues, from those our well-being depends on to those that simply engage our wonder (though I’d argue that the latter is itself an aspect of well-being). The critical thinker is actively engaged in the project of building a mind that focuses and clarifies her understanding generally, including her understanding of herself, her interests, and values. The skilled critical thinker is not a consumer of arguments, ideas or beliefs. She is a gardener, cultivating her own mind, producing her own intellectual sustenance and delight, and nourishing her own community of fellow critical thinkers. Our ability to act in ways that realize our considered interests depends on engaging inquiry actively. In this regard, critical thinking replaces reactivity with agency.