Today I stumbled across an article by the African-American Literature professor at my university, Koritha Mitchell. Her beliefs about where there are issues with African-American representation in university schools are unremarkable, but what got me thinking was the problems she identified with university culture. We are so quick to criticize the overly-liberal university system that we lose the gemstones of knowledge and wisdom that come from empathizing with the opposing views.
Her article starts with acknowledging something that many students may not be aware of: Professors are not fully in control of their own syllabus. They may be in charge of their class, but they are beholden not only to their students’ and their parents’ desires for what material should be taught, but also to their school’s expectations. Therefore, the liberal, mainstream content of a syllabus is just as much a result of the culture university professors exist in as much as it is the professors’ fault. It is a vicious cycle, with exclusively liberal beliefs inspiring the educational system to perpetuate more exclusively liberal beliefs.
Furthermore, we tend to forget that while progressive solutions to societal ills are not right or appropriate, their complaints and problems tend to be valid. As conservatives, we isolate our focus on problems we don’t believe to be legitimate and forsake ones that are perfectly real. Mitchell is an African-American woman, and only 7.5% of faculty members are. There is no way to look at that number and not see a breakdown in the system somewhere. As conservatives, we need to spend less of our time tearing down progressive analyses and solutions for problems and spend more time presenting our own.
Contrary to what one might expect, Mitchell seeks the same goals that many conservatives do for university environments. She wants the university system to stop coddling students and to get them to start questioning their beliefs in ways that make then uncomfortable. Though she wants their beliefs about America, it’s racism, and it’s prejudice questioned, and conservatives want beliefs about progressivism and government control questioned, you cannot (and should not) take one without the other. The quest for truth is one of perpetual questioning.
Mitchell and other progressives have questioned their own beliefs, and found themselves at the political opposite side of the spectrum. Conservatives can’t just write off these views out of hand. Instead, we must ask what problems she’s identified, consider if they are truly problems, and–if they are–think about what the appropriate response to them should be. We cannot possibly arrive at an effective solution if we do not understand the problem and everyone involved.
This kind of questioning isn’t the inflammatory, angry, or outraged conservative action we all enjoy. People like Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter are successful and famous because they are entertainers who play on our pride. We believe that the conservative ideology is correct, and so when we see people so flagrantly promoting falsehoods and lies it’s natural to be outraged. But sitting behind the computer screen, nurturing perpetual outrage will do nothing but sour our own mood.
Those in the middle and on the other side see how we react to them and their questions. If we react with dismissal, outrage, and pride, they will see that they are being written off and will look somewhere else to find truth. This is no doubt one of the reasons the Republican party is less popular with the average teenager or twenty-something: they see the GOP railing against the university system and feel themselves being disrespected and disregarded. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant: it is already happening.
This is a call to action to conservatives: investigate liberal and progressive arguments with an uncritical eye, and be open to learning from them where you may. Listen to your liberal university professors, peers, and students, and truly assess their complaints and arguments. When you respond, respond with respect for the person, whoever it is you’re talking to. You don’t have to seek this sort of discussion out, but you should be open to it when it happens.
Ultimately, treating progressives as inherently wrong or worthless is to become the terrible sort of person they claim you are. Conservatives must better than that.