[Link] Diversity and Academic Open Mindedness

by GLaDOS 2 min read4th Apr 2013149 comments

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David Friedman writes on his blog.

I had an interesting recent conversation with a fellow academic that I think worth a blog post. It started with my commenting that I thought support for "diversity" in the sense in which the term is usually used in the academic context—having students or faculty from particular groups, in particular blacks but also, in some contexts, gays, perhaps hispanics, perhaps women—in practice anticorrelated with support for the sort of diversity, diversity of ideas, that ought to matter to a university.

I offered my standard example. Imagine that a university department has an opening and is down to two or three well qualified candidates. They learn that one of them is an articulate supporter of South African Apartheid. Does the chance of hiring him go up or down? If the university is actually committed to intellectual diversity, the chance should go up—it is, after all, a position that neither faculty nor students are likely to have been exposed to. In fact, in any university I am familiar with, it would go sharply down.

The response was that that he considered himself very open minded, getting along with people across the political spectrum, but that that position was so obviously beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse that refusing to hire the candidate was the correct response. 

The question I should have asked and didn't was whether he had ever been exposed to an intelligent and articulate defense of apartheid. Having spent my life in the same general environment—American academia—as he spent his, I think the odds are pretty high that he had not been. If so, he was in the position of a judge who, having heard the case for the prosecution, convicted the defendant without bothering to hear the defense. Worse still, he was not only concluding that the position was wrong—we all have limited time and energy, and so must often reach such conclusions on an inadequate basis—he was concluding it with a level of certainty so high that he was willing to rule out the possibility that the argument on the other side might be worth listening to.

An alternative question I might have put to him was whether he could make the argument for apartheid about as well as a competent defender of that system could. That, I think, is a pretty good test of whether one has an adequate basis to reject a position—if you don't know the arguments for it, you probably don't know whether those arguments are wrong, although there might be exceptions. I doubt that he could have. At least, in the case of political controversies where I have been a supporter of the less popular side, my experience is that those on the other side considerably overestimate their knowledge of the arguments they reject.

Which reminds me of something that happened to me almost fifty years ago—in 1964, when Barry Goldwater was running for President. I got into a friendly conversation with a stranger, probably set off by my wearing a Goldwater pin and his curiosity as to how someone could possibly support that position. 

We ran through a series of issues. In each case, it was clear that he had never heard the arguments I was offering in defense of Goldwater's position and had no immediate rebuttal. At the end he asked me, in a don't-want-to-offend-you tone of voice, whether I was taking all of these positions as a joke. 

I interpreted it, and still do, as the intellectual equivalent of "what is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" How could I be intelligent enough to make what seemed like convincing arguments for positions he knew were wrong, and yet stupid enough to believe them?

Yup. (Q_Q)



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