Opinion

If you want to debate on campus, become an academic

The confusion about the university in our conversations about campus cancel culture

Have you heard universities have become monocultural hothouses of left-wing indoctrination in which moderate liberals and conservatives are driven underground to protect themselves from being "canceled"?

Of course you have. The claim has been incessant over the past few years, and it has enough truth to it that some (including yours truly) have been inspired to attach their names to letters of protest against the trend. Yet The New York Times apparently thinks there's room for a new voice in the endless argument about cancel culture on campus. Hence the Monday op-ed by University of Virginia senior Emma Camp, the argument of which is nicely encapsulated in its title: "I came to college eager to debate. I found self-censorship instead."

It's unfortunate if undergraduates at America's elite universities are worried they'll be penalized in some way (peer disapproval, social media denunciation, professorial push-back) for dissenting from what feels like left-wing orthodoxy on campus. But Camp's column leads me to wonder if at least some of her discomfort at UVa is a product of a fundamental misunderstanding about the purpose of a university.

Colleges shouldn't actively encourage and enforce ideological conformity. But neither should they aspire to be a debate society. The modern research university aims at something very different.   

Take it from me — a Ph.D.-holding opinion columnist who's taught courses at several universities over the years. My job as a columnist is to make arguments. Though I sometimes write a column that simply analyzes a problem, more often I state a position in strong terms, then attempt to back it up with reasoning and evidence. The goal is to prevail against a real or imagined antagonist who holds another view — to show the position I've taken is the right one and those who disagree with me are wrong. Often the reasoning within the column will raise arguments from the other side before shooting them down. This has the effect of stress-testing my own arguments, showing they're capable of standing up to the strongest objections raised by opponents.

That's how debate works. Two sides squaring off against each other, each one hoping to prevail. It's a sublimated form of warfare. Instead of firing artillery barrages at one another, the weapons are argument and rhetoric, with each side using reasoning primarily to justify its position against the alternative.

The research university has different aspirations — not winning arguments about inherently contestable subjects but the production of scholarship through research, a slow, grinding, forward movement of knowledge. That usually involves a process of explanatory reasoning. Not: Why Russian President Vladimir Putin was wrong to invade Ukraine (that's the kind claim an opinion columnist would seek to justify). But: How Putin came to think invading Ukraine was a good idea. Or: What factors contributed to the breakdown in relations between Russia and NATO during the post-Cold War period

Whereas justification pits heroic debaters against each other in a zero-sum battle to the (metaphorical) death, explanation is more collaborative, with each researcher beginning from the current scholarly consensus and attempting to make an original but humble contribution to nudge it onward. The academic peer review process is designed to verify the value of each would-be contribution.

Now, this is obviously an overly tidy dichotomy. Debaters, like opinion columnists, frequently deploy explanatory reasoning in what they write, just as the most ambitious and path-breaking scholars will attempt to shift paradigms of knowledge by taking on (and, hopefully, taking down) a segment of the established scholarly consensus in an eyebrow-raising act of justificatory reasoning.

Yet the latter is not the norm — and certainly not for undergraduates, who are typically asked to produce a presentation or research paper that merely summaries some small segment of the scholarly literature on one focused issue or problem within it. They are asked to explain some of the prevailing explanations, in other words, not to pronounce this position Right and others Wrong.

This matters because it helps us to see that going to college in search of "debate" is to set oneself up for disappointment.

Not entirely, of course. Many universities will have a debate club for students to join if they wish. They can also get involved with explicitly political student groups or go work for the op-ed page in the student newspaper. Certain courses of study, like pre-law, might include classes with a wider than usual opportunity to argue about controversial topics — though even there, students will be expected to wrestle with the full range of case law on particular subjects. And, of course, a truly pluralistic campus will host a wide range of speakers outside the classroom. When they don't — or when controversial guests are invited and then disinvited after an outcry, or they are drowned out by hecklers or intimidated from speaking by student mobs — that's a bad thing well worth criticizing.

But that's quite different from expecting classes to serve as debate societies, with professors and factions of students arguing with each other on opposite sides of polarizing topics. Universities should foster a culture of openness and free thinking — important preconditions for the pursuit of truth. But their ultimate goal isn't to encourage debate between rival factions eager to justify the rightness of their views on controversial topics. It's to encourage scholars in a range of disciplines to explain the world as best they can and, in so doing, to expand the bounds of human knowledge.

Undergraduates get a front-row seat at the process of knowledge creation during their four years on campus, hopefully learning something useful about the world along the way. That's certainly nobler than treating higher education as a wasteful and absurdly expensive ordeal that ends with little other than the empty conferral of an elite credential, though it's admittedly far less exciting than the gladiatorial contests Camp and many of her peers seem to have had in mind. They may end up disappointed, but if they really want to participate in scholarly debate — and, for that matter, to change the censorious climate Camp rightly denounces — they need to move beyond being students to become academics themselves.

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