Thanks to our universities, authentic discussion and disagreement have become boring, even impossible.
Because our universities have backed up particular belief systems with administrative authority. There are plenty of instances where the faculty or school administration supported a campus movement, the Condoleezza Rice debacle being just one of them. Professors teach students about everything from the social value of Lady Gaga to how feminists critique Christianity. This is not a problem in itself; I think students can and should gain insight by engaging with contemporary issues. The problem, I realized, is with how we frame authority.
I have heard fellow students frequently say, “I didn’t understand problem X, but after taking class Y, I get it.” Whether it’s the problem of racism, sexism, ableism, or another social critique, many students find college courses helpful in changing their minds. But is that what a class is supposed to do? No. Classes are supposed to provoke thought and create dialogue, not convert us to one side or another. A good professor offers what he knows, what he thinks, and why he thinks it, while opening himself up to critique and revision. Plato’s Socrates would have it no other way.
But you see, as we run from and transgress conventional authorities (family, local associations, church, etc.) we run to new authorities, figures who teach transgression, but demand obedience as much as any older institution or system. We gobble up the ideas they present and follow them just as scrupulously as we think medieval Europeans upheld patriarchy or the Han Dynasty upheld filial piety. We blindly accept the authority of the text, of the professor, of the glamour of novelty itself. Unfortunately, it leads to the same close-mindedness we associate with the antiquated and the outmoded.
Authority, then, is not some construct we can simply escape. Challenging traditional notions of how to act does not release us from obedience to new paradigms. Instead, we’ve ended up just where we left off. We say, “if only Miley Cyrus would take a Black Studies class” or “we should have Women’s and Gender Studies as a requirement because it deals with contemporary issues” (admittedly the latter is reasonable, depending on the angle). But what does that mean when these impetuses for discussion are transformed into dogma themselves?
We cannot run from authority. Instead, the question is how to encourage dialogue without idolizing transgression, how to facilitate inquiry without questioning the idea of leading. Personally, I’d start with Plato, but I’d be open to discussing it.