On Controversial College Speakers, Debating and Critical Thinking

Azusa Pacific University recently disinvited Charles Murray from giving a talk there. The talk had been scheduled for months, but apparently no one realized the full extent of his bad reputation. He wrote an open letter in response.

Although regular readers will know that my politics are quite opposite from Murray’s, I agree with Murray here. Here’s where I think they went wrong.

First of all, don’t invite someone unless you know who you are inviting and what they are going to say. Doing some due diligence on speakers seems not only like college PR 101, but college 101. Would we assign a book to our students without reading it ourselves, or at least having a really good sense of what was in it? Of course not.

Second, if you have invited someone who you discover has views you consider abhorrent, recognize that you have already given them publicity with the invitation. By my mind, rescinding the invitation doesn’t necessarily reduce their stature, all it does it prevent your students from engaging with their ideas on your campus.

Third, we should value engaging with ideas we disagree with in general, and in particular people like Charles Murray. Even when we disagree with conclusions, in higher education we should value people who convey their ideas clearly and with evidence, even if we see them as cautionary tales. I would much rather we engage with Charles Murray, because he often clearly lays out the ideas that many conservatives hold without explicitly stating them, than with vacuous celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy.

One of the things that I try to model in my psychology classes is how we disagree and settle arguments as scientists. Many of my students and I disagree on whether spanking works or not. That’s fine, but how should we disagree? As scientists, we should talk about what “works” means. Does it make children behave better? How would we measure that? Does it make them more obedient? How would we measure that? What sorts of studies could we do? Can we compare households who engage in spanking and those that don’t? What measures should we use?

It is very difficult to train critical thinking or even engage in it without any disagreement. Without disagreement, our claims turn into assumptions, and these assumptions melt away into the air we breathe.  This lesson is the one big lesson of perception. Just because we all see something the same way, doesn’t mean that it isn’t an assumption or a guess. Our visual system is full of assumptions that we don’t experience as assumptions.

We don’t realize that we have assumptions until someone asks “why do you think that?” Certainly it is possible to ask why without disagreeing, my kids do it all the time, but as adults we aren’t as easily led to the “why” questions without disagreeing with someone. You don’t think we need affirmative action? Why do you think that? You think over the past 50 years we have achieved meritocratic sorting in higher education? Why do you think that? You think you can write a book about class divergence as if it can be isolated from race? Why do you think that?

In my last post, I cited an essay by Murray on higher education. I find it useful in my own thinking to really grapple with the ideas here. Murray makes the claim that too many people are going to college.  He argues that we should make K-12 the grades where we impart liberal education and the core knowledge of our society, and that higher education should be more focused and targeted on people who want to be professionals and need training in reading and writing. I found myself agreeing that it is a problem that our society gives everyone the expectation that a college education is absolutely necessary to get a decent paying job, and we end up with many many students who are only in college to get a job, and are not motivated by the knowledge itself. Both Murray and I (and Mike Rose, I’d guess) would agree that our society should respect the trades far more than it does. I think where we’d split is that Murray seems to label trades as “good with your hands” and suitable for our low-IQ, unfit for college underclass, whereas Rose and I see trades as often just as cognitively demanding as professions, but simply not recognized as such. Here’s Murray:

But while it is true that the average person with a B.A. makes more than the average person without a B.A., getting a B.A. is still going to be the wrong economic decision for many high-school graduates. Wages within occupations form a distribution. Young people with okay-but-not-great academic ability who are thinking about whether to go after a B.A. need to consider the competition they will face after they graduate. Let me put these calculations in terms of a specific example, a young man who has just graduated from high school and is trying to decide whether to become an electrician or go to college and major in business, hoping to become a white-collar manager. He is at the 70th percentile in linguistic ability and logical mathematical ability—someone who shouldn’t go to college by my standards, but who can, in today’s world, easily find a college that will give him a degree. He is exactly average in interpersonal and intrapersonal ability. He is at the 95th percentile in the small-motor skills and spatial abilities that are helpful in being a good electrician.

I think he is drastically simplifying both managing, which requires a great deal more than linguistic and logical mathematical ability and being an electrician, which isn’t just small motor and spatial skills.

But that’s not the point. The point is that in laying out his argument, in claiming that the relevant distinguishing characteristic of this young man is ability (whether academic or small motor ability), Murray forces me to confront and sharpen my views on why I think people should go to college, why I think some people are unmotivated about college, and whether some people are “unfit” for college.

Rather than disinviting Charles Murray, why doesn’t Asuza Pacific University use this as a teaching moment, and ask someone else whose views are contrary to Murray’s? Why not spend some money and invite Ta-Nehisi Coates or a Isabel Wilkerson to talk about how the legacy of white supremacy still haunts us? I am not saying that everything is a debate, or that we should always give equal footing to each side of the argument, but if you have already invited someone, and that someone is clearly representative of a large body of views on one side of the political spectrum, why not debate instead of canceling entirely?