Students and faculty are not required to think anymore, laments spiked Education Editor Joanna Williams:
Too often it seems that universities today actually seek to prevent criticality and instead try to coerce groupthink among academics and students alike. One way this happens is through the enculturation of particular collective values. In the strange world of academia, an individual’s values and principles are no longer a private affair. Rather, they’re to be ‘given’ to you, which means you can be explicitly told which opinions to hold.
Williams has a good point. One wonders how Plato or Nietzsche would fare as professors in a modern university. Students who read the Republic are told not to mind Plato’s strange ideas about “sharing” women and children. But if Plato stood in a modern lecture hall, dressed in tweed suit and tie, would he be allowed to speak such revolutionary words? Or what of Nietzsche’s controversial “Ubermensch”: in today’s world, still shocked and frightened in the aftermath of WWII, should such ideas even be voiced to the young 18 to 22-year-olds who fill America’s classrooms? These two philosophers had brilliant and revolutionary ideas. Would modern audiences be willing to hear them for their brilliance, without rejecting them for their strangeness?
Williams critiqued professional standards laid out by the Higher Education Academy in her piece, mainly because they “[prescribe] values for lecturers to hold at all.” She writes, “That the HEA expects lecturers to demonstrate collective values … suggests criticality is no longer considered a fundamental part of the academic enterprise.” The real end of education, she reminds us, should not be inculcation of collective values. It should be the ongoing pursuit of truth and knowledge. But this criticism of “collective values” raises some questions: First, is it ever proper for a higher institution to promote “collective values”? If so, in what context?
Take, for instance, the small private college: especially at religious institutions, many lecturers hold certain “values” in common. Often, such values are a required component for teaching at or attending such an institution. Is this wrong, according to Williams’ thesis? Should the small Catholic college hire an atheist, to fight “groupthink” amongst its faculty and students? Surely, if a student received an F for writing an excellent paper on atheism, just because her school and professor are Catholic, we would consider it unjust. If the school threw out a professor who wanted to teach a literature class on the Koran, we should also see that as unfair.
Much depends on the way knowledge and values are taught and judged. Williams writes, “Although knowledge and values undoubtedly influence each other, losing the distinction between the two should be considered a major problem facing academics today … Expecting people to demonstrate they hold values that have been determined for them, irrespective of whether they individually agree with those values or not, creates a climate of uncriticality which is the exact opposite of what a university should be about.”
This topic can easily become “sticky,” especially when one considers the wide and disparate swath of ideas perpetuated in our culture. Questions of tolerance riddle today’s higher education world, especially at the private level. Determining where to draw boundaries takes wisdom and specificity. Nietzsche would not have “fit in” as a professor at just any university. But his work is important to all of us, and should not be denigrated merely because of his personality. True criticality, one might suggest, enables us to determine which “collective values” are important for the furthering of knowledge, and which are personal or opaque enough to deserve flexibility and analysis.