Learning, Dialogue, and the Responsibility of the Listener

Monday, August 15, was my first day on the faculty of the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I am the 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought & Policy. Although over the past twenty years I’ve taught at two small private colleges and Baylor, and held research appointments at Princeton and Notre Dame, I am not unfamiliar with large public universities like Colorado. My first full-time teaching job was at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), my B.A. alma mater, where I served in the philosophy department between 1989 and 1996.

I am, of course, aware that much has changed on the public university campus over last two decades. At many institutions, terms like “microagression,” “trigger warning,” and “safe space,” are often employed so that faculty, staff, and students may learn how to become more sensitive and careful in how they speak to one another on controversial subjects. The whole point, we are told, is to create a campus climate in which everyone feels welcome and free to be themselves. That may, in fact, be one reason why the University of Colorado has gone out of its way to establish a visiting professorship for a point of view often underrepresented on college campuses.

Critics have rightfully raised concerns about whether efforts at campus climate management may be detrimental to academic freedom, not to mention other long-held American beliefs about freedom of speech, the free exchange of ideas, and tolerance. After all, one person’s absence of a safe space may seem to another as a case of consciousness raising or speaking truth to power. Groups like Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have documented a slew of cases that, unfortunately, seem to confirm some of the critics’ worst fears.

Nonetheless, the climate managers are not entirely mistaken. Their policy prescriptions, whether they realize it or not, arise from our civilization’s Christian heritage, which instructs us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to practice the virtue of forbearance: “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Cor. 13:7 – NRSV) This should not surprise us, since, after all, the modern university developed out of the medieval universities of Christendom.

As a political conservative who believes that institutions such as families, churches, and schools, are more than mere aggregates of its members’ individual interests and desires, I am sympathetic to supporting a university’s right to be more intentional in securing its own mission as well as nurturing cultural practices and reinforcing certain beliefs consistent with those ends.

Webster Replying to Haine by George P.A. Healy, 1830 [Faneuil Hall, Boston]
Webster Replying to Haine by George P.A. Healy, 1830 [Faneuil Hall, Boston]

But when it comes to a public university in a pluralistic society such as ours – a society that contains within it numerous contrary, competing, and reasonable understandings of the good life – its mission will have to include different elements than what one may find at private faith-based institutions if the school hopes to fulfill its promise of being a welcoming environment that values diversity.

For this reason, the public university, given its public nature, has to be more generous to and forgiving of those in its community who dissent from the prevailing political and cultural orthodoxies that are embraced by the vast majority of its faculty and many of its students and staff.

If the business of the university is the pursuit of truth, it seems reasonable to raise the question whether the current project to reduce the risk of error (in the form of unwelcome offense) is deleterious to the achieving of the university’s proper end. For the fear of being wrong, or offended, is paralyzing, not liberating. A world in which the absence of risk is the highest end is one whose explorers, prophets, artists, philosophers, and scientists remain safely mediocre. But if we believe the truth will set us free, as all academics should believe, then any project that makes the truth’s acquisition less likely is something we should wake up every morning damned and determined to avoid.

So, it seems that the climate managers, though right about the need for creating and nurturing a campus culture of mutual respect and understanding, need to embed their project in, and continually test their proposals by, the university’s primary mission: the acquisition of truth.

One way that a university’s climate management can help accomplish this is by putting as much emphasis on the virtue of charity in the way we ought to listen to one another as it does on the principle of civility in the way we ought to speak to one another. For example, whenever I teach a course in which we cover controversial issues over which there is strong disagreement – e.g., abortion, euthanasia, affirmative action, marriage, race relations – I tell my students, first, that not everyone in the classroom is equally gifted in rhetorical skills, articulation, and public expression. We all enter the classroom with differing degrees of knowledge and firmness of conviction on these questions. For this reason, when we discuss these issues in class, some of us may offer our opinions in ways that may appear to others to be off-putting, grating, or harsh.

Our task as listeners, however, is to give our peers the benefit of the doubt, to interpret their comments charitably and in the best light. For if we do not make that our first course of action, and just use such incidents as occasions for reprimand, discipline, or community shaming, we may be sequestering ourselves from knowing a possible truth or better appreciating the grounds for our own beliefs. Also, as pursuers of truth we have to be self-critical as well, which means that we may have to entertain the possibility that our initial reaction to what we had heard was in fact an overreaction. Prioritizing first impressions is intellectual poison. Without first exercising the principle of charity, we are very likely to miss all these goods.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).