Ten principles for embracing productive conflict (opinion)

For over 20 years I have been teaching a college course on the science of well-being. When we talk about the psychology of courage, I start with just one question: Were the 9/11 hijackers brave?

The conversation often gets heated. Some reflexive reactions emerge. Someone usually says something like “Absolutely not! They are cowards! This year I had a student from the Middle East who took the risk of disagreeing with the rise of public sentiment in the classroom. She stressed the importance of gaining the perspective of terrorists, understanding their culture and belief system. In previous years, veterans enrolled in my class have explained that sometimes violence is necessary to protect your country.

Opinions about courage generate intense emotions. Conversations are difficult to moderate. It would be much easier if we just presented a PowerPoint slide with the common definition of courage. No conflicts. No improvised thinking. But we would do so at a price: we would have fewer opportunities for curiosity, intellectual humility and the exchange of points of view. We don’t want students to passively digest the definition of courage. We want them to think things through and be brave enough to share their thoughts, unvarnished and uncensored.

To understand the complexity of human behavior and society, we must accept difficult questions and respectfully consider alternative points of view. Worrying about whether you can ask questions and challenge the opinions of others is uneducated.

And we in higher education face many difficult questions and problems. There are racial issues. Studies show that teachers often label students who misbehave as troublemakers and discipline them more harshly if they are black than if they are white. For reasons beyond their control, black students are less likely to graduate from high school and enter and graduate from university compared to white students. Black instructors get a lot worst grades from anonymous students on the quality and credibility of education than white people.

There are social class issues. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds lack cultural capital, insider knowledge of books they should have read, and social connections that allow entry into groups that offer greater opportunities. As such, their sense of incompetence tests their the energy to perform at high levels inside and outside the classroom.

Then there are the climate issues on campus. National surveys indicate an increase in the number of university students reluctant to share their opinions on controversial topics in the classroom. In an investigation run by the Heterodox Academy, three in five students said they had self-censored out of fear that “other students would criticize my opinions as offensive”, while one in three students feared that “the teacher would say that my opinions are wrong”. With a high level of liberal leanings among professors in traditional universities, some more conservative ideas seem to be, and often are, verboten. And while professors receive salaries to assess, teach and study complex societal issues, forms of censorship are common, including prohibiting them from testifying on the campus issue mask mandates and cancellation of conference appearances because, for example, they offer alternatives to existing race-based affirmative action policies.

Taboos at the Academy

The problems of the education system span the political spectrum. Given this wide range of issues, colleges and universities are experimenting with interventions — from anti-racism education to wellness initiatives to curtailing legacy, wealth-based, and athletic admissions. In fact, a few months ago a group of intellectuals announced the launch of a brand new university, the University of Austin, or UATX, supposedly to right some of those wrongs. They propose an experiment to produce an educational experience “fully committed to freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience and civil discourse”.

The plan is to to be “fiercely independent”, both financially and politically – a university where controversial topics are open to reflection and evaluation of existing evidence. As colleges and universities grapple with a history of racial, class, and ideological discrimination, it helps to create an institution that adheres to such lofty commitments as exploring the nature of humanity, even if the results are uncomfortable.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the University of Austin – or any educational experience – is the design of culture. How do we establish a culture that empowers and embraces minorities, whether defined by numbers, power, status, or demographics? How to protect dissent? How do you create a place where people can ask provocative questions without being overruled and others can respond with subsequent questions and concerns about the initial provocation?

What really determines whether freedom of inquiry exists in a university is how people react when the minority points out the dysfunctional beliefs and practices of the majority. When you create something from scratch like the University of Austin, you are no longer the alien raging against the machine. The institution becomes the machine. So you have to put in place protection mechanisms so that people can disagree with the institution. People are fallible, and so the institution you create will be too. Course corrections will be inevitable. Students, faculty and stakeholders must be empowered to initiate them.

A proposed charter of 10 university principles

As a long-time professor at George Mason University, I know of a number of issues with the current education system and have some personal thoughts on how to address them. I have developed a proposed charter for a university trying to do what UATX aspires to, consisting of 10 principles for higher education institutions interested in building academic, intellectual, and social communities. Principles are a set of rules or truths that stand the test of time. With clear principles, a university holds a beacon for making tough choices. Here are the ones I recommend.

  1. The principle of illusory danger. If you think of a question, you can ask it. The only dangerous question is the belief that dangerous questions exist.
  2. The principle of benevolent intention. Encourage others to talk by letting them know that you will work hard to respond with charity, curiosity, and the assumption of positive intent. When speaking, you should receive the same receptivity unless there is compelling evidence to suggest otherwise.
  3. The principle of sympathy. Reduce the impact of how much you like or dislike people when it comes to making judgments about the content of their posts and how you treat them. Know that sympathy is often unrelated to the legitimacy of ideas. We have to separate the message from the messenger.
  4. The principle of individual differences. Resist treating individuals as representatives of their groups. There is often more heterogeneity within groups than between groups.
  5. The principle of open-mindedness. Balance pressures for compliance with a willingness to explore alternative ideas and perspectives. Remember that being open and curious does not imply a commitment to change your point of view.
  6. The principle of wide diversity. Expand definitions of diversity to go beyond what is visible to include categories of class and socioeconomic status, adversity, neurodiversity, and individual differences in temperament and personality. Remember, there is no point in attracting diverse individuals unless you do the hard part of working with them, valuing and encouraging their uniqueness.
  7. The ad hominem principle. Resist the temptation to label people as simply “bad” or sexist, racist, homophobic, elitist, ideologue, snowflake or whatever. Instead, engage in the more nuanced task of battling against the quality of their ideas and solutions.
  8. The principle of independent thought. Be aware of the cognitive biases that afflict everyone, especially confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. Maintain the same standards of proof whether or not they agree with your original and preferred positions.
  9. The principle of behavioral evidence. Rely on the evidence as much as possible, even if it leads to answers that conflict with your assumptions and preferences.
  10. The principle of personal evolution. Each person must commit to learning and growing. It means being willing to let go of ideas that no longer work or that don’t survive empirical scrutiny.

We don’t know if the University of Austin experiment will adhere to the above principles. We can keep hope. Meanwhile, perhaps administrators at existing colleges and universities will read this list and conduct audits to determine how well they align their daily actions with these principles. Let’s produce educational environments that incubate future leaders who possess courage and flexibility, knowledge and creativity. The arc of human progress has always depended on those who make it.

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