by James A. Bacon
There is widespread concern among critics of higher education in America that elite universities are squelching free speech and open dialogue in the pursuit of social justice. There is ample evidence that such is exactly the case. But institutions vary, and what occurs at Harvard or Yale may or may not be indicative of reality at the University of Virginia. It is incumbent upon us at the Jefferson Council to draw conclusions about the state of free speech and civil discourse at UVA based on what is happening at UVA, not what we read of horrors elsewhere.
Fortunately, in the age of the Internet, the partisan and ideological proclivities of college faculty are more transparent than ever — even if administrators are not. Professors leave abundant evidence in their writings and in digital recordings. Insofar as we have time, we will profile cases we come across.
We first became interested in Rachel L. Wahl, an associate professor of education at UVA who is affiliated with the Karsh Institute for Democracy, because she was one of eleven appointees to the Religious Diversity Task Force charged with addressing religious bias on the Grounds. If a purpose of the task force is to facilitate dialogue between hostile religious groups, appointing Wahl was likely a good idea. Not only does she encourage respectful dialogue, she researches what it takes to achieve it.
Ten months ago Wahl made an online presentation during the College Civic Learning for an Engaged Democracy Forum, which was captured in the video above. Based upon her research and experience teaching a seminar at UVA, she described what she learned. She keeps her personal political leanings to herself, and she treats students’ perspectives, liberal and conservative alike, as legitimate. She does not try to change students’ views. But she is pleased if they come away with a deeper understanding of “the other side” and an appreciation of them as people.
Wahl’s approach strikes me as an excellent model for UVA to adopt. It is encouraging to know that there is a place for her at the University. I don’t know how representative she is of the UVA faculty, but there are other professors like her. That gives me hope that creating truly open dialogue at UVA is possible. What it means to conduct free and open dialogue in an environment in which certain ideas are never taught, however, is a very different question, and one that must be grappled with.
Her prefatory remarks in the video are worth hearing because they lay out the philosophical divisions within academe very nicely. Not everyone believes, as Wahl apparently does, that open dialogue and civil discourse are good things.
It is axiomatic among members of the Jefferson Council that the purpose of education is to teach students how to think, not what to think, and that freedom of expression is fundamental. But the left has developed an elaborate rationale for viewing civil discourse as just another tool for perpetuating oppression. Wahl explains:
A lot of people worry that these kinds of conversations can do a lot of harm, that they actually end up squelching dissent by insisting on a kind of civility in which unpleasant truths cannot be spoken and a certain mode of engagement that is often expected in dialogue and deliberation actually undermines resistance and the tools of people who have been historically oppressed. So the concern then is that deliberation and dialogue maintain the status quo or an even deeper oppression by making sure that people only say things that sound nice and polite, that even though the idea is that we’re just going to listen to the better argument, what we come to think of as the best argument tends to be defined by dominant groups by their own experiences, and what they’re likely to recognize as common sense because it mirrors their own experience delegitimizes other forms of engaging in democracy such as activism, and that it narrows democratic participation, and that it fails to challenge systems of power because it focuses on inter-personal relationships. … It’s a way to shore up consensus so if the students who happen to sound more like their teachers are considered more rational, then dominant groups will be able to legitimize their perpetuation of their ideology to the detriment of the historically marginalized….
She is working on a book on the role of dialogue in democracy that tries to take these concerns seriously, Wahl continued. “In what ways might dialogue cause harm and when and for what and in what ways might it strengthen movements for social justice?”
As part of her research, in 2017 she conducted interviews with 51 students (who apparently engaged in dialogue sessions of some sort, although that’s not clear from the video), and interviewed as many of them as she could again in 2020. Only a few changed their minds on political issues as a result of the conversations, but many came away with the idea at least that those with whom they disagreed politically weren’t idiots or fascists or evil people.
In the video Wahl makes a fascinating observation that turns the critical theory paradigm on its head, although she does not draw the conclusion from it that I do.
Critical theory examines power structures, and in analyzing campus dynamics, it assumes that the power structures that exist nationally are replicated on a smaller scale in universities. But that’s not true. Progressive intellectuals, who chafe at their powerlessness on a national level, hold considerable power in academe (although they complain it’s not enough). Drawing from the dialogues that she witnessed, Wahl said:
Now, did elite students dominate these conversations? This question is complicated because there are many different forms of privilege and status, so the students who tended to be from the University of Pennsylvania, they tended to be older graduate students, and the conservative students tended to be from Cairn, which is a smaller college, and they tended to be younger undergraduates. The students from Cairn … did express that they were intimidated by the students at Penn and they did express that they were more open to what they had to say because they viewed them as having more education or a more elite form of education. In that way the elite students did have an advantage because they were viewed as more rational because they were able to be more articulate because they had more practice expressing and defending their views … and they had more markers of status.
One might inquire whether the differences found in Wahl’s inter-collegiate dialogues are replicated in universities where faculties, staff, and graduate students are overwhelmingly liberal/leftist, have more practice than impressionable undergraduates in articulating their views, and enjoy more “markers of status.”
While some courses at UVA might be reminiscent of Maoist re-education camps, most are not. But can the absence of overt leftist bias still result in a kinder, gentler form of indoctrination? If students are never exposed to conservative/libertarian/independent ideas that would give them the conceptual armature to contest what they’re hearing from leftist professors and graduate students, what does “open dialogue” even mean?
The manner in which partisan and ideological bias at UVA works its effect on students is more complex and nuanced than commonly understood. We’re still learning how it works, and we’re likely to modify our views as we know more. We’ll do our best to give UVA alumni a balanced appraisal.
James A. Bacon is executive director of the Jefferson Council. The views expressed here are his own.