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Whither Our Universities? Part 1

Is the sun setting on our universities?

Since high school, one way or another, I have been associated with universities. First as a student (undergraduate and graduate), then as a Postdoctoral Fellow, as a research collaborator, and also as an Adjunct Professor. I have also participated in academic pursuits such as writing and refereeing papers. Organic Chemistry was my focus and through that discipline I met many fine people.

A writer of futuristic fiction is concerned about where things are headed

As a writer of futuristic fiction, I am driven by “What if …” questions. Since universities have played such an instrumental role in our culture in molding the sequential generations, naturally enough, some of the “What if” questions deal with trends or potential trends I have observed in higher education.

In my novel, The Halcyon Dislocation, the movement and isolation of a hypothetical University of Halcyon to a parallel world sets up an experimental literary sandbox. One can ask the question, what would the university elites do if they had the opportunity to channel the thinking of their students in any direction they chose? What would they choose? How would they get there?

What would university elites choose if they could mold student thinking in any direction they wanted?

One of the problems that plagues science, indeed culture and politics as well is the question:

If I can do something, how do I determine if I should do that very thing?

The “can” is usually determined by data, experimentation, and collective scholarship, but the “shoulds” remain elusive since they depend on the question of objective right and wrong which is inaccessible to data and experimentation. In the absence of an objective right or wrong, the answer often becomes: “Because I have the power and I want to, I will do it and no one can stop me.”

The danger then, for universities, is the tendency to becoming factories of conditioned students rather than nurturing educated students who have learned to thoughtfully consider opposing points of view in humility and respect.

Becoming factories producing conditioned students, rather than educational institutions that enable students to thoughtfully consider different viewpoints with respect, is one of the dangers universities face

The antidote to this tendency to become ever more efficient conditioners of students as our manipulative skills and technology increase, is to make sure opposing voices (including religious voices) are not only allowed to speak, but are heard and considered. Free speech is the best safeguard against conditioned speech.

A Recent Example That Hits Close to Home

I know of Organic Chemistry Professor Tomas Hudlicky by his fine reputation. He wrote, and had accepted a paper in Angewandte Chemie (along with the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Angewandte Chemie is arguably one of the two best journals in chemistry). However, after the Twitterati ignited a Twitter storm (Twitter Gewitter?) everything changed for Professor Hudlicky, According to an article in the National Post by Peter Shawn Taylor, the accepted paper was withdrawn by Angewandte Chemie, the two referees were taken off the referees list (I’m sure as volunteers they have better things to do with their time) and the editor was suspended.

I respectfully suggest you read the whole paper, as I did, or at least read up to page 4, along with Note 2 which seemed to cause all the offense and then think about discussing the points Professor Hudlicky is making.

The text of the paper if it’s still available … Hudlicky Paper

Retraction Watch with resignations

Another Retraction Watch discussion

A blog by Jordan Peterson on this specific topic

In my view, the proper way to proceed is to have everyone, first read the paper, then present their best arguments in respectful discussion. A view or position that is not permitted to be questioned, is likely indefensible. If the case for the other side were compelling, why not make it? Is that not the mission of universities to encourage students to properly discuss opposing points of view with respect and leave the final convictions that come out of the discussion to the students? Apparently not.

Conviction and Prejudice

Prairie_Chicken_on_University_of_Calgary_campusWhen I was an undergraduate, I was told by a fellow student who knew that I was a Christian that a Professor of mine had said to this student that he (the Professor) did not really believe one could be a researcher in science and a Christian. Now do not misunderstand me. I am not writing to show another example of “anti-Christian bias,” but rather the contrary. I believe the Professor in question, if this hearsay is accurate, was expressing a personal conviction. This Professor, despite his personal convictions about the predetermined outcome of being a Christian and a scientist, did everything in his power to give me a chance to prove him wrong. He helped me at every turn of the road. If you think of his conviction as a prophecy, he did not conclude he had to make his prophecy come true – it was either true or false without any help from him and he chose to work against the prophecy.

In our age of Human Rights Commissions and our era of Political Correctness, we make the false assumption that if a person makes general statements they believe to be true, that prejudge others, then these statements will inevitably lead to prejudice either by the speaker or by a listener. Given this assumption then, one has an automatic conflict between intellectual honesty (complete freedom of thought, conviction and speech) and possible prejudice. The freedoms always lose. Our education system and media have transmogrified from providing information and teaching students how to think, to a much more programmed and settled outcome of determining the opinions they will hold when they complete their education. We have moved from educators to manipulators. We do this because we draw a direct line from conviction to prejudice. So we assume if we do not inculcate in our students the right convictions, they will inevitably behave as bigots.
We have lost the moral element. Justice, fairness, and humility ought to keep us from connecting the line from conviction to prejudice. If I have the conviction that women golfers cannot compete with men at the PGA level, I must not work to prevent them from competing based on my conviction. If this conviction proves to be correct, it would show up in the tournaments and not because I and others pulled political strings to force the outcome.
We need to return to a climate where freedoms (especially freedom of speech) are held in very high regard and yet where we all work to give everyone every chance to prove those expressed convictions to be in error.
In The Halcyon Dislocation the powers controlling the dislocated University of Halcyon carry these presuppositions to their logical conclusion. Education unabashedly becomes an exercise in manipulation justified by the credo “we must control how people think so we can control how they will act.” Free speech takes a sinister turn. Why not let people speak freely and then we will use that spoken data to help us effectively grind their opinions out of them? This sham freedom of speech is then used as a more comprehensive form of oppression.
Peter Kazmaier is author the The Halcyon Cycle , a colonization epic about a university that is dislocated to a new world when an experiment goes wrong.