Public Spheres for the Trump Age: No Longer Fresh at Project Syndicate

Preview of A Few Notes on Higher Education in the Age of Trump Let me take a break in this column from our usual economics to worry about our institutions: What have we to say—to hope and fear—about the role and the future of the independent—ideologically and intellectually—university?

We care because universities perform two crucial roles. They transmit our civilization to the young. And they are the only place where productive thought about both the long-run and the short-run advantage and destiny of the human race can take place.

Truth be told, the world's for-profit media enterprises were never up to the task of nurturing a robust and constructive "public sphere" (in the sense of Jürgen Habermas in which humanity could discuss and debate our very important issues of how to govern ourselves and where to focus our collective talents. Their news and advocacy articles are inevitably annexes to what really matter to the funders: advertising. Thus they will be under enormous pressure either to please their niche base as much as possible or avoid offense to the broad majority. Even Walter Lippmann ultimately put more of his ultimate trust in a secular priesthood of scholars and other public intellectuals—at think tanks, at intellectually and ideologically independent universities, and in an occasional journalistic niche.

For most of the post-WWII era in the North Atlantic, the structural deformities of for-profit media did not do much harm. The far right was in intellectual and moral exile because of the Nazi-fascist catastrophe it had unleashed upon the world. The far left had to stagger under the millstones of its attachment to the—murderous, unproductive, and regimented—régimes of really-existing socialism. Political democracy, social insurance, and a market economy thus became a non-negotiable triple. And so technocratic discussion and debate about what was in the greatest good of the greatest number could proceed and shape policy without gross derangement in an era of the end of ideology or, more optimistically, of "history" in a Hegel-Kojéve sense

But now, in what the wise Larry Summers calls "the challenges of the Trump era", the stakes are higher. And Larry fears that not just universities, not just think-tanks increasingly subject to the dictates of their funders, but universities are failing to meet these high-stakes challenges properly. So let me recommend Larry's piece in the Financial Times very strongly. Let me urge all to think deeply about his five points. And let me join him in three, concur in part with and dissent in part from a fourth, and dissent in a fifth.

(1) Summers is completely correct in calling for universities worldwide to do more to "recruit, admit, and educate economically disadvantaged students". Universities are lazy when they focus on admitting only the well-prepared, and fail their students, themselves, and the community when they blame the failure of the less well-prepared to attend and to succeed on their failure to have been wise enough in choosing their parents. Universities need to take their job as maximizing educational value added, which requires finding the students who would most benefit and providing them—whatever their previous preparation and experience—with a proper on-ramp and proper merge lanes.

(2) Summers is completely correct in finding it "terrifying that the U.S. now has its first post-rational president who denies science, proposes arithmetically unsound budgets and embraces alternative facts.... Universities... [sh]ould be bulwarks for honest, open debate as a route towards greater truth..." The point of a university is to express ideas. But the point of the university is, even more, to evaluate and assess ideas. We need a diversified portfolio of ideas to discuss. But we also need to assess what ideas have failed the tests of coherence, utility, and good faith.

(3a) This requires that members of universities be free to set forth and argue whatever ideas seem true or at least worth investigating. This requires that members of universities be free to invite to speak people with ideas that they judge to be, at least potentially and at least possibly, great ones. Universities are no place for the "heckler’s veto [by] those who want to carry the day with the strength of their feeling rather than the force of their argument." Perhaps I should stop there, and simply concur with Summers on this point.

(3b) Nevertheless, I do need to point out that (3a) is in some conflict with (2). Members of the university have an obligation to, as Berkeley Professor Ernst Kantorowicz said 70 years ago, "their conscience and their God" to set forth ideas because they sincerely believe that these ideas are—potentially, at least—great. And so when I note the case Summers cites—that of Charles Murray at Middlebury—I have to ask: Who thinks Charles Murray has great ideas to express? I saw Murray discuss his Bell Curve back in 1994-5, and I was not impressed. The assessment of Murray since has not been gentle And surely one can safely presume that those who have burned even one cross are not playing with a full intellectual deck when they claim that those of us with ancestors most of our ancestors did not leave Africa 50,000 years ago are grossly genetically inferior. Yes, once a member of a university has invited Charles Murray, he should speak. But those who sponsor him need to consult their conscience, pray to their God, and tell the rest of us what they sincerely believe are the great ideas he has.

(4) And so on to the issue where I dissent. Summers claims: "something has gone badly wrong when the chancellor of the largest state university system is pushing faculty attendance at seminars where faculty are trained that it is wrong and even racist to say that 'America is a land of opportunity' or that 'meritocracy is a good thing' or that 'with hard work you can achieve your dreams'". To say "Meritocracy is a good thing. FULL STOP!" is to ignore that the very first use of the word "meritocracy" comes in 1958 in the Rise of the Meritocracy by Michael Young the point of which is that the rise of the meritocracy is a bad thing indeed. The key to whether it is wrong and even racist to say "meritocracy is a good thing" depends on what you say next: Are you opening up or closing off discussion and debate? Are you encouraging promising young people to work hard and learn or are you blaming them for deficiencies in preparation—for having failed to choose the right parents?

It is very important not to be doing the second. A university is a safe space for ideas in which they can be expressed. A space is also a safe space in which ideas can be evaluated and judged—and in which we can change and are strongly encouraged to change out our old ideas for those that rational discussion and debate leads us to judge as better. And a university is also a safe space for scholars to grow and develop. Summers is right to note that "a liberal education that does not cause moments of acute discomfort is a failure." Summers is wrong to fail to note that much student acute discomfort comes from attempts to deny that students belong at the university and from attempts to prematurely close down discussion.

And faculty should be encouraged—strongly encouraged—to attend seminars where they think hard about when and how and if they should say things like "meritocracy is a good thing", given who their students are, where they come from, what their preparation is—and, indeed, the origins of the term as a label for something the sociologist who coined the term thought was a bad thing indeed.

(5) Finally, let me concur with Summers that perhaps, most important of all, is the preservation of civility and discourse norms on university campuses. Universities as communities of speech and debate are very vulnerable to disruption. Preserving norms of civility against such disruption is important both for the functioning of universities and for its impact on the wider world. Indeed, Summers rightly warns that broader electorates take universities in turmoil as a sign that societal order needs to be reestablished. As he notes: "Perlstein demonstrates that railing against what was happening at Berkeley brought Ronald Reagan to power. I suspect college campuses are again radicalising as they did in the 1960s and I suspect the political effects will be about the same now as they were then. That is not a happy prospect for universities, our country or the world..."