Values & Capitalism is now AEI’s Initiative on Faith and Public Life. Click here to learn more about our mission and new name.

Campus Turmoil and the Free Market of Ideas

We are in a time of heightened political correctness which is beginning to disturb many in the academy and the wider public.  Political correctness is not a new phenomenon, but it largely subsided for the first decade of the 2000s before returning with a vengeance in the last few years. Whereas before, the emphasis was on being strictly accurate with language and ensuring an inclusive atmosphere, the focus now seems to be on an almost Orwellian preoccupation with the psychological state of American college students. Universities are losing their status as places of transgressive explorations in thought, challenging ideas, and stimulating dissent. They are now becoming the province of whichever student can plausibly claim to be the most thin-skinned among his peers. Instead of survival of the fittest, we are now approaching the survival of the most easily offended and prone to anger.

It is not enough to teach “global historical perspectives” where formally marginalized groups are now given their due credit. Now there are calls for actively suppressing the teaching of parts of Western history generally and American history in particular. Wherever historical events stray into areas that these groups find to be less than pleasant, students must be protected inside their own fortresses of solitude by never being required to hear uncomfortable facts spoken.

This new model of a college education is the antithesis of what a university was designed to be. But what’s so great about the old model of education in which controversial ideas were allowed to be expressed, where they still held the power to shake one’s fundamental assumptions? After all, now that we have reached an enlightened age in which we know that old stereotypes were harmful and backward, why should we go on pretending that students must discover the truth on their own? If we have the truth, and it feels safe, and warm, and inclusive, why not just skip all that nasty Socratic discussion and give students the right conclusions at the outset?

The first problem with the above notion is that many people still don’t agree with the warm and fuzzy “consensus.” But even if they did there remains a deeper problem. To illustrate this, let’s consider an economics analogy. The reason why a market economy is superior to a “planned” economy comes down to one major factor: the knowledge problem. This dilemma which was most clearly articulated by F.A. Hayek in the 1940s explains why planned economies fail time after time. To effectively plan a society requires that one have all the relevant information required to make the right decision. But Hayek pointed out that knowledge is far too dispersed among individual actors to be effectively aggregated together by government experts.

[pq]The only hope for my generation is a reinvigorated free market exchange of ideas.[/pq]

Let’s take a simple example: the loaf of bread you buy at the store. For that bread to get to the shelf every week, a myriad of different pieces of information must be collected together. Everything from rainfall patterns in Nebraska to gas prices in Chicago could come into play in the process to ensure that that bread is on the shelf when you need it, at a price you can afford, and in a supply that does not radically exceed or fall short of consumer demands. Millions of individual decisions taken together result in the most efficient production of that bread, which ultimately helps to keep us all from starving.

So what does all this have to do with some PC police on college campuses? Simply put, the attempt to centralize all acceptable teaching and speaking into one narrow and repressive mold will lead to intellectual starvation for college students. Nobody intends this, but it will be the end result of the current trend. Soviet officials did not want to cause the starvation of over 6 million Soviet farmers in the 1930s. Chinese communists did not want the “Great Leap Forward” to claim the lives of over 45 million Chinese. But that is the problem with reality; intentions don’t matter in the end, while the actual results of a policy do. This new PC movement may not intend to handicap the next generation of young people, but by artificially shutting off the market of ideas, it will do just that.

One of the greatest things about a university education used to be the privilege of joining the “Great Conversation” which began at the dawn of civilization. It did not so much matter if one agreed with Socrates, Dante, or Ricardo—what mattered is that one shared a common logical framework and love of truth from which honest debate could be conducted. Students now enter universities and colleges in which they are being indoctrinated into the “Great Monologue.” This monologue is one which has been scrubbed of offensive words, concepts, and facts. They stand for hours in the bread lines of acceptable thought awaiting whatever crumbs of intellectual sustenance that can be gleaned from an education which is so “inoffensive” as to sometimes exclude reality. The world is an offensive place. Therefore, to actually learn about it presupposes encountering offense.

The only hope for my generation is a reinvigorated free market exchange of ideas. If one enters college—the first real adult experience many of us have—and immediately has their mind cast into a mold of what thoughts they are allowed to think for the rest of their life, then they risk having their intellectual imagination emaciated in its infancy. Just as a market economy requires entrepreneurial innovators who can drive technological progress, the intellectual economy of our nation requires enough freedom of thought to allow people to search for the truth wherever it lies. Apart from that method for renewal, my generation faces the very real threat of intellectual starvation.