Thursday, March 8, 2012

Heed your own bias: A dissent to Brian Rosenberg

Originally published in The Mac Weekly.

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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 everywhere.

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 environment.

“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 survey language.

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.

“The 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.”

A 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.

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