**Note: Full disclosure here: I taught for several years at a major American university.
Outside of technical courses like computer science and mathematics and biology, the focus of university content should be based on teaching rational thought. Simple things like the Three Laws of Classical Thought, logical fallacies, and how to avoid engaging in things like equivocation that are the basis of having meaningful discourse.
These things used to be taught as part of logic and rhetoric courses … indeed they formed the backbone of a liberal arts education. Nowadays this has been lost. And this is trickling down into lower levels of education, as well. Hell, now we even now have progressive schools here in Chicago (e.g. Catherine Cook School) trying to teach kindergarteners about “oppression” by denying access to playground equipment or their cubbies to certain groups of kids … teachers clearly more concerned about pushing their own views onto six-year-olds then teaching them how to think for themselves.
The result is that you have feminists and progressives redefining words like “violence”, engaging in blatant acts of equivocation that undermine serious conversations that members of a free liberal society need to have in order to sustain that society. Indeed, free thought, and the vibrant discourse that goes with it, are the lifeblood of a free society. You can call this leftism or cultural Marxism or progressivism or feminism or whatever you want to point the finger at … but the real point here is that there are clearly some basic tenets of logic and rational thought that are not being taught to college-educated people anymore.
This is a very real threat to the continued sustenance of Western society. It is a moral failing of the profession of higher education.
This doesn’t even begin to touch on further issues related to the economics of academic journal publication and tenure, and how those create perverse incentives for scientists and scholars to behave in ethically questionable ways. But we will leave those issues for another post …
History has a tendency to repeat itself. During the 1600’s, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes railed against the university system in England for fomenting rebellion by teaching “subversive” doctrine, which led to social upheaval and the English Civil War of the 1640’s.
Hobbes solution to this was to have university curriculum dictated by the sovereign authority, which at the time in England was Oliver Cromwell who effectively ruled as a military dictator in England (and after the Restoration in 1660, the new King Charles II). The sovereignty would have the ability to approve, in essence, what was taught and how. For Hobbes, the goal was to provide a civic education for the public, in order to maintain a healthy social contract between the government and the governed.
Now I can’t necessarily agree with Hobbes argument that the government should directly dictate what is taught at the university, or how that message should be shaped. That seems a slippery slope to Totalitarianism (a point many later scholars have criticized Hobbes for). But I would agree with him that the university system has a responsibility to teach people how to think critically, rationally. Or in other words, how to think for themselves.
I would hope that the university system in the West could self-regulate in this regard, as an aspect of some sort of professional ethics, the same that doctors in medicine or other fields do. But this is not happening, and instead we have too many professors who feel entitled to teach kids what to think.
Hobbes may have been over-zealous in his approach to a solution to this. But the fact that this very same issue existed in the past, and led to such social upheaval and actual civil war, should be a lesson for us today. We are all part of a social contract, whether we realize it or not. Whether we like it or not. It is the price we pay for living in a civil society, lest we descend into a war against all, bellum omnium contra omnes. University professors are no exception to this rule.
When any of us abdicate our responsibilities to these social contracts, we jeopardize the very things that enabled the construction of the society that fostered us in the first place. Now whether doing so is right or wrong is a matter that could be debated. But to do so without deep thought or consideration, is pure naivety.