Last month, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill board of trustees surprised UNC’s students, faculty, and administration by passing a resolution calling for a new School of Civic Life and Leadership. SCiLL, as they dubbed it, was to focus on the defining goal of the university’s new Ideas in Action curriculum: building “citizen-scholars” by improving “skills in public discourse.”
The same day the resolution was passed, The Wall Street Journal editorial board hailed the trustees for “taking on the university echo chamber.” One trustee declared on Fox News that SCiLL would be a conservative “school inside a school” providing “equal opportunity for both views to be taught.” The skills emphasis was rapidly eclipsed by talk of “viewpoint diversity” and “ideological balance.” Faculty were flabbergasted and feared that North Carolina would become the next Florida.
We both helped craft UNC’s new curriculum. We disagree with one another politically. But we share the trustees’ concerns. Universities can become echo chambers where ideas that run against the grain rarely come up even for consideration. Higher education must help fix our broken democratic conversation, but mandated “balance” and “viewpoint diversity” will only compound the cacophony of the echo chamber. The right answer is not viewpoint diversity but a vibrant argument culture. “SCiLL,” developed well, could provide education in debate and public engagement urgently needed for the Ideas in Action curriculum and the future of our democracy. SCiLL as a top-down mandate for partisan division will surely backfire, teaching students a bad lesson about public argument.
Universities don’t want to be echo chambers; they want to be communities defined by the free exchange of ideas. But, as in any community, taken-for-granted ideas can marginalize contrarian positions at least as effectively as official mandates. Students may, for example, hold their tongue rather than advance ideas they fear their peers or faculty will denigrate. Students, faculty, and the public — across the political spectrum — forfeit the opportunity to hear, understand, and revise their own ideas as they consider new ones.
But you can’t fix an echo chamber by throwing more voices into it. That only makes the echoes louder. It seems so simple: just hire some conservatives to simulate balance. But a partisan dictate reinforces the worst of our polarized moment. The lesson it teaches is powerful and destructive: The terms of any dispute are defined in advance by two — and only two — sides. They are reducible to partisan affiliations and therefore not subject to change through argument. Students must choose one or another side in a tired debate, put on the jersey of their chosen team, find a like-minded coach, and play the game of modern American politics. They are deprived of the opportunity and the responsibility to think beyond our current partisan divide.
“Balance” is a solution that gives up on the real problem: When we most need civic argument aimed at the common good, it divides us around competing personal viewpoints — distorting the core skills and practices that make democratic argument productive.
Emphasizing viewpoint teaches students to not bother separating ideas from the people who hold them. Viewpoint is a visual metaphor that attaches what a person believes to where they sit: Viewpoints are properties people own and express, not ideas to be evaluated. It’s a classic ad hominem fallacy that renders argument fruitless.
“Viewpoint diversity” only aggravates the worst tendencies of the viewpoint metaphor. It further narrows and personalizes argument. Settling for exposure to viewpoints — as if they were infections to which one might develop antibodies — places them outside the realm of argument and reason. We fail those on the political left by ignoring conservative arguments instead of engaging them. Meanwhile, conservative students learn that their ideas are something others should be exposed to rather than meaningfully engaged.
The goal of a robust campus culture should be a vibrant discussion where every serious idea — left, right, or beyond — is challenged with strong evidence and the best arguments. A vigorous college experience should change the terms of the debate, not just recapitulate them. Every idea should be available to be expressed, submitted to evidence and examination, vigorously challenged, rigorously debated — and discarded if it doesn’t hold up.
Confronting serious ideas means that while every person deserves safety on campus, no idea does; all ideas deserve the respect that a real stress test brings. The best way to break the campus echo chamber is to open up campuses to better argumentative practices. That means fostering faculty skills and tendencies to create excellent, multifaceted debates in the classroom and around campus. And it means teaching students to desire and demand access to the full range of ideas, perspectives, and arguments that might turn opinion and perspective into argument- and evidence-based knowledge.
That ideal is what we call an argument culture, where the force of the better idea can win among a robust range of defensible claims; any good argument has a seat at the table, unconstrained by the contours of current politics. And that’s what everyone from trustees to administration to faculty and students should be building so students and the public alike can refine and interrogate even their most closely guarded opinions.
Andrew J. Perrin is a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. Christian Lundberg is an associate professor of communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.