Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Diversity Versus Specialization

Henry Manne (H/T: Todd Zywicki) also weighs in on the conservatives-in-academia issue, commenting on the same Peter Schuck article that prompted my latest post on the issue.

Like everyone else it seems, Manne starts by dismissing "any kind of government-enforced viewpoint affirmative action."
Everyone seems to recognize the morass of abuses, bureaucratic meddling and the sheer impossibility of enforcement that such an approach implies. A private solution - almost any private solution - is to be preferred to that.

Well, sure, when you put it that way. Yes, I too would not like the government busting into to our universities and mandating that they hire a quota of Republicans. But I define AA more narrowly as just a specific and institutional effort by a university to diversify their faculty or student body--in this case, politically by adding more conservatives. How they go about it is up to them. In any event, I think that Manne gets to the real core of opposition later in the piece, saying:
Certainly no one wants the government to intervene (the usual interventionists because they would lose in the short run and the anti-interventionists because they are just that).

That's closer to the heart, I'd say.

Unlike most folks speaking on the issue, however, Manne questions whether a plurality of viewpoints is even all that desirable. Instead, the upshot of his argument is that we should favor specialization in law schools. Manne is affiliated with George Mason University, which is basically a specialty shop for Law & Economics folks, and Manne would like to import that model to other institutions. So you'd have schools that specialize in liberal legal thought and conservative thought, perhaps a Crit school or a feminist school, etc etc..

Specialization has its advantages, I suppose, but I really don't think that it's the proper model for a school. One of the key aspects of an education is exposure to competing viewpoints. Schools should, as institutions, try and challenge their students, not keep them in intellectually insulated cocoons. Students don't actively seek out opposing viewpoints, but their presence is critical to creating well-rounded citizens, a key value that I believe academia must impart. Manne writes that:
Schuck's second proposal...is the idea that every professor should present impartially and thoroughly all sides of any controversial issue. After all, he could argue, we are trying to train lawyers who may have to assume any side of a given proposition, and therefore it is the responsibility of any law professor to teach all sides.

I suppose at one time, when almost all of legal teaching was done via the rote quoting of 'rules of law,' this may have been a feasible albeit irrelevant approach. But today the fine analysis required of various legal rules - and not merely in constitutional law but equally in almost every field - requires teachers who not only understand the finer points of, say, the market theory of antitrust, but who would be embarrassed not to scoff at the opposite view. Should an antitrust professor 'fairly' present a near-totally discredited idea like monopolization being inherent in resale price maintenance? Frankly I believe that Peter is simply wrong in this. I think the best teaching, and therefore the best preparation for lawyering, is done by professors who are intellectually committed to the views they propound and who present their case as strongly as they can.

I think this is a weak argument. The whole "present a near-totally discredited idea" objection is a strawman, the idea is to teach legitimate academic controversies, not to concoct controversies for their own sake. I don't think I'm being inconsistent when I say we should teach a breadth of political philosophies, but should exclude Nazism from the canon. Also, one can agree that a Professor should strongly advocate her particular position without rejecting that colleges should be pluralist institutionally. Even if students learn best from hearing just one side presented strongly (as opposed to all sides "fairly"), there is no reason why a school shouldn't has a whole be balanced. That is, the liberal professor is unabashedly liberal, and the conservative professor is unabashedly conservative, and therefore the campus as a whole benefits from the availability of diverse views while at the same time maintaining the "committed" professor in the classroom. Indeed, a monolithic campus environment may make it less likely that a professor will be as aggressive on her pet issues in class. I think most professors feel at least a nominal obligation to insure their students are fully exposed to the their given topic. If there are a professors representing a variety of political persuasions, then they'll feel fine focusing on their strengths, knowing that interested students can find other faculty members if they wish to pursue other avenues. But if their view is the only game in town, then professors might feel obligated to be as balanced as possible to make up for the shortfall.

Of course this isn't a problem if the school explicitly labels itself "conservative" and markets itself that way. But again, I think such a school is eliminating a very important part of its mission. I don't want liberals to be so be default, and I don't want conservatives to be so because they've never heard or read a liberal. We need to encourage folks to broaden their horizons. Individuals perhaps should be specialists, but institutions should be generalists.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the issue is different in undergraduate and graduate studies. When engaging in undergraduate studies the importance of exposure to a variety of viewpoints is more essential as one is oftentimes being exposed to subject matter for the first time. However, when one selects to do graduate work, one often selects a professor or school to do work under specifically for an area of specialization (ex. Feminism, conservative, marxist etc.) So the case for specialization in largely professional (law) or graduate institutions can be made much easier than it can in those institutions that have large undergraduate components.