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Professors call on peers to return academe to one of respect, inquiry and honest debate

Two books recently reviewed by The Wall Street Journal have one thing in common: they both seek to challenge scholars to return to the era in which higher education was respected and respectable.

The books are “Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education” by Ursinus College Professor of Politics Jonathan Marks, and “Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us” by Northwestern University Professors Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro. Schapiro is also president of Northwestern.

The three scholars essentially build a case for similar outcomes.

Marks calls for conservatives to help salvage universities, according to the book review:

For Mr. Marks, this means creating “reasonable people,” as opposed to “skilled arguers” who want to crush their foes with rhetoric: “We should ask students to join a community for whose members speech is not a weapon to deploy against the enemy, but the means by which people who pursue the truth and hope to live according to what they capture of it teach and learn from each other.”

It sounds like a great way to gain an education. But how many professors share his faith in the power of reason? And are today’s students ready for his message? Mr. Marks claims that the capacity to become “the kind of human being who takes pleasure and pride in trying to distinguish the true from the false” is “widely distributed.” Ten minutes of doom-scrolling on Twitter will offer conflicting evidence. It’s just as easy to believe, these days, that people derive more satisfaction from shutting down debate than from deliberating over what’s true and false. Mr. Marks concedes that one of the reasons young people have soured on free speech is that they’ve beheld “the stupidity and insincerity of what passes for public discussion.”

A renewed commitment to liberal education could work like a vaccine against foolishness and lies, Mr. Marks argues, as it tries to develop “the disposition to treat reason not just as a tool but as an authority.”

And in “Minds Wide Shut,” its authors posit a similar plea. The book review notes:

Messrs. Morson and Schapiro are academics who have spent a good deal of their lives on university campuses, and they know that things ain’t like they used to be. Their works return us to well-trodden paths of moderation and conversation, bidding us stay back from the slippery slopes that lead to dangerous dogmatisms. …

Defenses of liberal education have evolved over the years, but the ones offered here are fairly traditional, with frequent citation of Tolstoy, George Eliot and Adam Smith, but these touchstones matter less than the common-sense reminders to “keep the conversation going.” …

Messrs. Morson and Schapiro are surely right to point out that in recent years we have instead seen new fundamentalisms generate solidarity through distrust, disinformation and angry resentment. Their book reminds us that we need to aspire to create communities open to learning, to conversation and to recognizing one’s own errors. That’s what we want, after all, from our campuses and from our democracy.

Read The Wall Street Journal’s “Let’s Be Reasonable” book review here, and its “Minds Wide Shut” book review here.

IMAGE: Spiro Inc. / Shutterstock

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