Friday, January 28, 2022

LETTER: Toleration isn't exciting, but is necessary in our academic setting

March 20, 2015

Next fall, I will teach a course that features two famous thinkers with whom I have made no secret that I disagree. And yet, the course is one of my favorites.

The reason is simple. I love engaging those with whom I disagree, not in order to defeat them intellectually or silence them, but because I learn so much by trying to wrap my mind around how they can accept the assumptions they make about human nature and society.

Don’t get me wrong, my view is not a relativistic “all opinions are equally valid.” I disagree with these thinkers in the end because some of their assumptions are wrong and the evidence indicates that social theories built upon those assumptions lead societies into problems.

But I can disagree with their ideas while respecting them as human beings who are entitled to debate and engagement. And like them, I’m a fallible person, and I have to assume that I also can hold problematic assumptions or weigh evidence incorrectly. Indeed, we learn more from our mistakes and intellectual errors than we do our successes.

The assumption of human fallibility, I want to suggest, is a good way to approach the issues of toleration and civility on a university campus. Toleration, as E.M. Forster said, is “a very dull virtue. It is boring.” He’s right.

Toleration is like honesty, or prudence, two other boring virtues. Imprudent behavior or lack of civility may, like intolerance, play well on Twitter or Snapchat, but they are destructive to a free society.

Shouting down your opponent may feel heroic, but it leads inevitably to increases in coercion and discrimination. The boring virtues, backed by recognition of our own fallibility, are essential to the life of a free society. And they are the backbone of academic freedom.

Universities have become one of the hallmarks of free societies because they provide the intellectual freedom to explore any and all ideas in order to improve the way we think now about ourselves and the world around us. We can only do that if our initial stance is openness to others’ ideas, that is, to be tolerant.

Toleration does not mean, however, that we somehow have to agree with all the ideas we meet.

Intellectual freedom entails the responsibility to discern and make judgments about truth, to engage ideas and decide for ourselves. At the end of the day, you may well decide that my ideas are wrong. In the public arena, some views of the world will be rejected. But what are the standards by which we make such judgments?

Responsible discernment implies intellectual discipline. It is not a mistake that the fields of study you major in are often called “disciplines,” for each has different assumptions and different methods of evaluating evidence, and to be a part of that discipline is to take those assumptions and methods as your guide for discerning truth. I’m an economist, often guided by the assumptions and methods of that discipline. But I’m also interested in ethics, and in particular, the way the assumptions and methods of economics, as well as the consequences of economic policies, intersect with ethical considerations.

Such cross-disciplinary consideration is common at Michigan State, where we often talk about interdisciplinarity. When done well, interdisciplinary work is a reminder that the assumptions and evidentiary standards of disciplines are also capable of being wrong.

Past experience tells me that in class next fall many students will struggle with the perspectives of our two authors because they will challenge the students’ own views.

One response, and it is typical of many students’ responses to the ideas of our first author, is to latch onto arguments that sound like their own, and come quickly to the conclusion that “this author thinks like I do.” When we get to our second author, however, practically all of the students will either flat-out reject or have a difficult time engaging the author’s ideas.

In order to ensure that our course work does not merely reinforce the students’ prior beliefs, I may have to use each author’s perspective to push the students to confront aspects of their own ideas that they may be unwilling to consider seriously.

That’s the work we have the freedom to pursue, even though it is not easy.

Toleration may be boring, but encouraging it is often hard work. But if we stick with it, the professor and students, and even society, will reap the benefits for years to come.

Ross B. Emmett is a professor at James Madison College.


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