Originally published in The Mac Weekly.
It is not my intention to attack President Rosenberg for expressing his own view of Rick Santorum. I am not a Santorum supporter myself for a
variety of reasons. However, I do take issue with the lack of balance in
President Rosenberg’s argument. If the candidacy of Rick Santorum is so
deplorable that it warrants abandoning the tradition of the apolitical
college president, then our president should present a more balanced
case as to why.
Instead, President Rosenberg’s column amounts to
cherry-picking. He focuses on two issues in order to present a sweeping
indictment of the candidate as a whole. While this is an effective
strategy for scoring political points, it does little to further
knowledge or discourse.
To recap President Rosenberg’s argument:
Normally, a college president is apolitical. However, if a political
argument threatens a college’s mission, one should speak out. Rick
Santorum’s denial of climate change science’s legitimacy and claim that
colleges are ‘indoctrination mills’ threaten the mission of colleges
A liberal arts education should never feel threatened by
contrary views. One cannot make an exception that says we should only
consider paradigms that value a multiplicity of views; it is the paradox
of tolerance that one must be open to even those ideas that challenge
their own worldview of openness.
This is particularly the case when
considering axiomatic thinkers, those who argue ideas flow from what
they perceive to be an objective truth. These types of thinkers, found
on all sides of the political spectrum, may dispute the merits of
discursive openness if it threatens the legitimacy of a worldview
contained within their ideology.
Sure, this presents a challenge to
those who value ‘open discourse,’ as President Rosenberg puts it.
However, it is a challenge our college president should be open to
rather than marginalize by declaring Rick Santorum’s ideas a threat to
the college itself.
President Rosenberg’s dismissal of the concept of an
‘indoctrination mill’ is particularly striking. I might suggest he take
a cultural studies course here and learn about some of the greatest
thinkers on the distribution of knowledge in society. Take Antonio
Gramsci on the left or F. A. Hayek on the right, and you will find a
common theme: the institutions of society are self-replicating. To
explain more colloquially, people tend to act based on how they have
been taught, and they will teach others to act similarly. College is an
institution of society, and a given college instills its students with a
certain way of thinking. Graduates of college pass on this way of
thinking to others, and the cycle continues.
I do not say this to pass a
value judgment on this fact. However, it means that a student taking
college courses will think in a way taught by the college. In this
regard, Rick Santorum is right. I am a college student who values a
liberal arts education- I am at Macalester after all. However, even I
will admit that Macalester has trained me to think in certain ways at
the expense of others.
College is not the only institution from which
one learns how to think a certain way. Families, churches, workplaces,
media—they all inform our view of the world. No matter how open you are
to new ideas, you are educated and informed by your background and
“Discourse affords some opportunity to challenge the
judgments of others and to revise our own,” libertarian economist Daniel
Klein once said. “Yet inevitably, somewhere in the process, we place
what faith we have.”
Klein is in a good position to discuss this
paradox. He conducted a study several years ago that set the blogosphere
aflame. The comprehensive poll asked respondents several questions on
basic economic principles. The result found conservatives and
libertarians answered correctly, while liberals failed the test.
Tauntingly titled “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” it left the
right feeling vindicated and the left feeling like a victim of poor
Klein stood by the results, initially. But he did
conduct another version of the test the next year, asking the
respondents questions with correct answers that defied libertarian and
conservative values. The findings prompted a mea culpa from Klein.
new results invalidated our original result: under the right
circumstances, conservatives and libertarians were as likely as anyone
on the left to give wrong answers to economic questions,” he said. “The
proper inference from our work is not that one group is more
enlightened, or less. It’s that ‘myside bias’—the tendency to judge a
statement according to how conveniently it fits with one’s settled
position—is pervasive among all of America’s political groups.”
liberal arts education helps us think critically, but it cannot prevent
us from maintaining our own biases. Conservative, liberal, moderate,
libertarian- we are all human, and we all fall prey to the same
mistakes (Anybody who wants to learn a more human side of Rick Santorum
should read “Rick Santorum’s Inconvenient Truths” by Joel Klein, a
relatively liberal columnist at Time Magazine).
Thus, I cannot condemn
Rick Santorum for drawing a conclusion on climate change that emerged
from his own worldview in good faith. We all have issues that we believe
in, rightly or wrongly, despite evidence to the contrary.
To be sure, a
liberal arts education comes laden with its own ‘myside bias.’ No
matter how alien it may seem to those of us in the Mac bubble, the
axiomatic thinkers I spoke of earlier may have some measure of truth to
contribute. President Rosenberg presents a view of the liberal arts
education that I sympathize with.
Nevertheless, I do not want to only
hear or only consider this view. President Rosenberg put it best in the
preface to a book he wrote in 1991.
“Released from the need to compete
in a vast competitive chorus, the critic is left to contemplate the
sound of his own voice.”
In future articles, I hope President Rosenberg
does more to acknowledge the sound of his own voice.