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Viewpoint Diversity Run Amok
The college classroom is not a place for political expression
By Martha McCaughey and Scott Welsh
After a century of struggle over the appropriateness of politics in higher education, an uneasy agreement is emerging. More and more professors and politicians, from left to right, seem to be settling into the idea that university teaching and research are political. Noting that higher education has always been influenced by state, corporate and ideological interests, and that every scholar has unexamined biases, some scholars now even embrace the idea that scholarship itself is inherently, inevitably political. If complete objectivity is impossible, they insist, one must pick one’s side and transparently advocate for one’s position. In response, some higher-ed reformers wish to implement “viewpoint diversity” in university classrooms to combat what they see as the left-leaning biases of academia.
The problem with turning to viewpoint diversity as a response to the politicization of higher education is that it concedes too much. Instead, higher-education reformers concerned with left-leaning biases should defend that which makes colleges and universities unique spaces—a concern with truth above all else. Calls for viewpoint diversity that draw political expression even further into research and teaching in the name of “balance” amount to little more than “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
License To Shill
There have always been professors and politicians who have concluded that injustices are so plainly evident that faculty members should commit class time to raising awareness and advocating for particular solutions. Committing class time to advocacy, however, runs counter to the principles historically espoused by the American Association of University Professors, which was founded in 1915 to protect academic research and teaching from politics, including pressure groups, donors, corporations and politicians. The struggle to protect academics from politics has been unceasing. After World War II, anti-communists hounded faculty for their political affiliations. In the 1990s, progressives attempted to create speech codes that banned speech they regarded as offensive or demeaning to specific groups. Today, in an ironically parallel fashion, conservatives seek legislative measures to ban the teaching of critical race theory on the grounds that it is psychologically distressing to specific groups of people. Higher education has always been a politically contested site.
There is pervasive confusion, however, over what it means for academia to be a politically contested location. Taking note of the scholars who now go so far as to identify themselves as “scholar-activists” committed to social justice, some higher-ed reformers on the right have countered left-leaning activism by advocating ideological balance through increasing “viewpoint diversity.” Is it not the next logical step that higher-ed reformers should insist on hiring right-leaning scholar-activists as a counterweight to left-leaning ones? Should these new conservative scholar-activists not then be designing courses and service-learning experiences that pursue conservative priorities? We say both sides are wrong, and both are destroying the public trust in universities.
They are wrong because institutions of higher learning are the places where students seek truth and knowledge and cultivate discovery and innovation. Scholarship and teaching are supposed to be protected from corporate interests and political ideology. A location of epistemic authority that is not ostensibly controlled by legislatures, corporations, parents or familial dynasties—and the imprimatur of “truth” it guards—is inherently, unavoidably going to be politically contested. But this does not mean the practice of scholarship and teaching is, itself, a practice of politics. Quite the opposite: Scholarship and teaching only have value insofar as they remain insulated from and explicitly eschew identification with political or ideological movements and programs.
Thank You for Sharing
That viewpoint diversity is so enthusiastically promoted by some of higher education’s most strident critics is itself revealing. In each instance, faculty responsibility for what goes on within classrooms is diminished to elevate partisan student voices. The James G. Martin Center, a right-leaning organization pushing for reform of higher education in North Carolina and beyond, issued a Blueprint for Reform that repeatedly exhorts legislatures and trustees to “promote and protect viewpoint diversity at colleges and universities” by making sure that students “voice their opinion, without fear or peer-pressure in classes” through incorporating “questions about classroom free expression issues into course evaluations.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis even incorporated such language into Florida House Bill 233 in 2021 (the so-called Stop WOKE Act), requiring assessment of the level of “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” in classrooms at Florida universities.
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s 2021 Report, “Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap,” similarly champions “more viewpoint diversity on campus,” operationalized through campus climate surveys that “include questions on free expression and viewpoint diversity, including questions about how comfortable it is to express a view that others might find objectionable in class and in other campus settings.” Heterodox Academy, the nonpartisan organization perhaps most responsible for popularizing the concept, recently asked faculty members in a social media post what they are doing “to promote viewpoint diversity in your classrooms,” explicitly affirming the trend of equating the valuing of viewpoint diversity with a classroom practice.
Heterodox Academy even awarded the then-University of Virginia student Emma Camp its “Exceptional Student Award” for her New York Times opinion piece that reports finding self-censorship rather than debate in her campus dorm, at parties and in classroom settings. Camp describes being frustrated when her political opinions weren’t automatically seen as valuable by her professors and classmates. Even more than calling for “a campus culture that prioritizes ideological diversity,” Camp asks for “strong policies that protect expression in the classroom.” Camp also suggests that faculty should specifically “reward intellectual diversity and nonconformism in classroom discussions.” Consistent with a number of recent Heterodox Academy initiatives, Camp asks faculty to think of college classrooms as fundamentally places for students to share personal opinions and political viewpoints.
Score one for the post-truth postmodernists. The assumption circulating through these approaches is that college classrooms are forums for laundering opinions, and all students deserve a participation trophy for sharing theirs. This gets higher education completely backward. The classroom is a space where faculty members, using their disciplinary judgment, limit the subject matter, judge (i.e., grade) students on what they do or do not master and work to eliminate—not give voice to—untested, unsupported ideas or mere opinions. Indeed, faculty members (and, importantly, not students) have the academic authority, based on their subject matter expertise, for determining which sorts of participation contribute to mastering course material. As philosophy professor Justin McBrayer points out, valuing all viewpoints as an end in itself only denies universities’ ultimate goal of seeking truth.
Restructuring classrooms around student viewpoint diversity turns teaching into Twitter, where virtually all contributions are permitted and no one exercises editorial judgment. For this reason, professors embracing viewpoint diversity in the classroom as a way to show they’re not pushing an orthodoxy has as pernicious an effect on higher ed as scholar-activism has. Instead of insisting that scholarship and teaching should be as independent as possible from politics, these calls for viewpoint diversity frame soliciting students’ viewpoints as the antidote to orthodoxy. Advocating surveys to check how well college instructors welcome students’ opinions, insisting that faculty give credit to students who voice uncommon opinions, or saying faculty should be evaluated on how well they invite students to share their personal or political viewpoints undermines the authority rooted in faculty members’ subject matter expertise—the very basis of faculty self-governance and academic freedom.
While constructive disagreement amid viewpoint diversity is certainly important for campus life writ large, where students live and learn in the context of cultural, religious, political and identity differences, this merely sets the stage for—and is not identical to—the practice of disciplinary or open inquiry. Outside the classroom, students can and should engage in the free exchange of ideas—political, religious, metaphysical and intellectual. We support the many recent initiatives, from clubs to special intercollegiate trainings, designed to help students learn to engage civilly in difficult conversations across political differences. But a campus that is safe for such debate must still distinguish the purpose of these wider campus discussions from the more narrow, disciplined focus of college classrooms.
This distinction between the practice of inquiry and the exchange of opinions amid diverse viewpoints is perhaps less obvious in the social sciences and humanities than in the “hard” sciences, where there are relatively few opportunities to substitute the collaborative application of method with the expression of a viewpoint. In the social sciences and humanities, ideological viewpoints are frequently the objects of study themselves. In such contexts it can be tempting for some students to construe the classroom as a place for individual viewpoint expression. Yet academic truth can’t be gleaned from untrained, unsampled sharing of experiences or viewpoints. Instead, rigorous methods pose research questions and invent ways to generate answers to them. Students can be trained to apply such methods, but doing scholarly work will always entail restraining personal viewpoints or expectations, not featuring them.
It’s Not About You
Jonathan Haidt, co-founder and former president of Heterodox Academy, famously advised universities to pursue truth rather than social justice as the central telos of the university (“Truth U” rather than “Social Justice U”). Haidt, like science studies scholars Helen Longino and Donna Haraway before him, criticizes viewpoint homogeneity as an impediment to truth. Haidt and his colleagues’ 2014 article on this topic, “Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science,” reviews prior scholarship showing that greater political diversity, or viewpoint diversity, likely has positive epistemic effects insofar as it corrects for personal or political bias that may affect disciplinary work. They also review studies showing, for example, that mixed political groupings tend to perform better on problem-solving tasks than politically homogeneous groupings.
But in each of their examples, the study participants manifesting greater viewpoint diversity were simply doing their jobs solving problems and reviewing research. They were not making their viewpoints the subject of the conversation itself. In other words, inasmuch as viewpoint diversity improves epistemic outcomes, expressing the differing viewpoints is not how that happens. Gains in knowledge do not emerge from any sort of political discussion or disagreement. Rather, background diversity simply allows for a wider range of scholarly observations to be collectively noted.
This more sophisticated and limited support for viewpoint diversity does not justify scholar-activism or students sharing viewpoints in class. Haidt has even stated that instructors have a professional responsibility to educate, not indoctrinate, students. If we don’t resist turning college classrooms into a Twitter-like environment of sharing opinions, we won’t have Truth U or Social Justice U; we’ll have You U.
Instead of recognizing that even unconscious bias can have an effect and should be corrected for—a concern at the very heart of the scientific method—we’re seeing more and more higher-ed reformers deploy “viewpoint diversity” for a variety of purposes that do not support the truth-seeking mission of the university or the academic freedom it requires. When students experience their college classrooms as fundamentally places of viewpoint expression or advocacy, they will inevitably come to see any settings where their personal viewpoints do not have a platform as silencing or bullying, and they will equate the political leanings of their instructors and classmates with higher education itself.
Teaching at Truth U
We are not suggesting that disagreement or debate is automatically out of place in a college classroom at Truth U. Far from it. Students and teachers often collaborate in the exploration of disciplinary texts and methods—but these are debates in service of honing collective understanding of difficult problems and concepts, not debates over personal or political viewpoints. Similarly, in a class on debate, the methods to be learned may include the various types of political debate. Yet, as a method to be learned, students practice advancing a position for the sake of learning how to advance a position—it is debate in the service of method; it is not debate qua debate. In a class on abortion rhetoric, students would examine all the ways that abortion is talked about, but their own individual opinions on abortion would be irrelevant. When a college class studies such controversial issues—like many of the classes we ourselves have taught—students will not solve the controversy or arrive at a consensus because their opinions are not the point.
Faculty need not steer away from controversial subjects. The very core of academic freedom is the freedom to apply disciplinary methods to any subject. In one of our classes, students were invited to analyze the rhetoric of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the height of the 2016 presidential election season. This is not a political or ideological task. Instead, it involves the application of disciplinary methods to understand how the candidates’ speeches invited listeners to make sense of the world. The point is neither the expression of personal opinions nor taking a side.
Similarly, students in a rhetoric course might learn about the rhetoric employed by social justice activists; but doing so would be the study of rhetoric, independent of students’ positions on any social justice issue. Students in a philosophy class might focus on their experience and examine their beliefs, but this is an exercise in the application of the method, not the expression of belief as a substitution for evidence. This is not viewpoint diversity run amok. In contrast, some instructors tell us that they draw out students’ opinions in an effort to engage uninterested students—as a means to an end. But this presents a confusing message to students like Emma Camp about the purpose of the classroom.
Regaining the trust of a society equally confused by academics and other campus actors pursuing political ends will not come from devoting class time to the expression of personal or political viewpoints. Instead, rebuilding trust will require colleges and universities to practice open inquiry untethered to viewpoints, making inquiry, rather than political balance, the point of teaching.
For faculty, this means redoubling our commitment to our roles as professionals responsible for defending academic freedom. Faculty members’ right to pursue political projects on their own time must be matched by their defense of higher education as a place of inquiry and understanding first and foremost. This means defending the curriculum from political projects, only approving courses and programs that articulate a specifically academic mission, and ensuring that new faculty members understand how important such norms are to their profession and the future of academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors’ Statement on Professional Ethics reminds us that “professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence. They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge.”
As scholars we are obligated to something bigger than ourselves, our identity categories and our political causes. While colleges and universities are indeed improved by viewpoint diversity—meaning faculty and students animated by a wide range of backgrounds and experiences—the collaborative, methodical pursuit of truth, not self-expression or politics, must remain our focus. University faculty, administrators and reform organizations alike should champion colleges and universities as spaces of open inquiry resistant to politics and ideology.