All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1973

The Need for Tolerance and Humility


Dr. Weast is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Waukesha County Campus.

There was once a university in the heart of America where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings. The university lay in a verdant grove of academe; autonomous, self-perpetuating, and buoyant. In the spring black and white clouds of commencement robes signaled the end of another prosperous year of learning; a year in which professors had taught and students had listened. Then a strange blight crept over the university, and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the academy. Everywhere there was the shadow of death. There was a strange stillness in the classroom. Teachers no longer taught; students no longer listened. The professors, for example, where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. Classrooms once vibrant with dialogue were now dull with apathy. The campus, once green, was now arid with alienation or else afire with revolt. No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The professors had done it themselves! 1

As societies become more complex — as the population grows, as the statuses and roles multiply, as the exposure to conflicting ideologies increases — there seems to be waning agreement over the validity and propriety of abstract values and norms. Such is the case with American institutions. From the secular world of sports (where questions are being raised concerning the value of winning), to the sacred world of religion (where questions of relevance have become a source of bitter debate), one struggles to discern whether a common ethic exists.

The institution in American society which appears to be the epitome of the present bewilderment is the university. Witness the contradictory attitudes and behavior which not only exist in academic life, but are considered beneficial by their various representatives: From so-called “teach-ins” where speakers plead that others “see the light” so that the “correct” actions will be taken, to those whose idea of teaching leads them to reject various forms of political proselytizing; from professors who insist that students have a right to “relevant” courses to those who question the meaning and dimensions of the term “relevance”; from those who agree that government has no place in academic life and that therefore R. 0. T. C. should be abolished, to the insistence by the same people that Peace Corps and Draft Counseling courses have a proper place on the campus.

A Perplexing Contradiction

Why such contradictory behavior not only occurs but is rationalized at great length by leaders in the academic world as being part of “education” is, to say the least, perplexing. Perhaps Irving Kristol provides at least a partial answer by his observation that, “when an institution no longer knows what it is doing, it start strying to do everything.”2 Granting the accuracy of this pessimistic insight, it may be useful, nevertheless, to develop models of what education ought to be; otherwise there is little prospect of ever realizing a coherent educational system. As a step in this direction, I will attempt to clarify what I see as one of the essential purposes of education, explore some of the necessary conditions for its fulfillment, and illustrate how these conditions are often violated by those who transmit “education” — the professors.

A statement from the Harvard Report, “General Education in a Free Society,” provides a point of departure.

Education is not merely the imparting of knowledge but the cultivation of certain aptitudes and attitudes in the mind of the young… These abilities, in our opinion, are: To think effectively, to communicate thought, to make relevant judgments, to discriminate among values.3

It may be inferred from this statement that one of the essential purposes of the university is the cultivation of the individual mind — a mind which is committed to the search for and the transmission of true knowledge.4 It is this principle which gives credence to the institution of learning — in spite of its diverse curricula and individualistic practitioners. It is this principle which validates the “community of scholars” concept.

The very existence of the university reveals the recognition that a cultivated mind is not obtained automatically, but requires intensive intellectual training.5 This involves, of course, such things as “sound training in the fundamental ways of thinking” represented by the various disciplines and “the ability to handle and apply complex ideas, to make use of a wide range of accurate knowledge, and to command the means of effective expression.”6 It is my judgment, however, that this training will be undermined, or will be, at best, superficial unless certain attitudes prevail in the hearts and minds of those charged with doing this training — the professors. That is, it is imperative that professors show by word and deed their commitment to virtues which are the life-blood of the cultivated mind: tolerance and humility.7

To Develop an Open Mind

By tolerance I am not referring to the narrow and topical application of racial tolerance, but to a commitment to having an open, receptive mind. Whatever the issue is about, no matter how contrary the view may be to one’s own (or no matter how favorable), the commitment of the professor must be to discovering, through the painstaking use of intellectual skills, whether and to what extent it is true or false.

It is extremely difficult to develop an open mind. One of the reasons for this may be that our parents, and paradoxically, even our professors have failed to demonstrate, by their own actions, the virtue of this goal. Given the nature of their non-academic roles, the behavior of parents can be easily understood if not excused. But this is obviously not the case with professors.

What are some indicators that some professors have failed to be models of tolerance? As far as their actual classroom performance is concerned, it is very difficult to obtain reliable information; it is a time-honored tradition that “outside observers” are only welcome by invitation. Students, of course, may cite instances of professors failing to give balanced presentations of highly controversial issues (controversial in the sense that reputable scholars do not agree) or of their failing to give serious consideration to the questions and opposing views of their students. But though these charges may indeed be true their validity rests on the integrity of the student as well as on his competence to make such judgments.8

Fortunately, we do not have to rely on classroom evidence. In recent years there have been occasions outside the classroom in which some professors have failed to grasp the opportunity to show their students, as well as the general public, the virtue of tolerance. Their behavior at some of the teach-ins on Vietnam provides a striking example. A professor of sociology observed one of these Teach-Ins at the University of Wisconsin and made the following report:

The professors who spoke were almost completely biased. They did nothing to restrain and much to encourage the hissing, groaning, and jeering that immediately greeted any assertion or question suggesting deviation from their own views. They engaged in question-begging witticisms — “The Lingo of The NeoJingoes”, one professor titled his talk. They permitted the display and distribution of inflammatory photographs, literature, and signs in the classrooms. They scheduled the Teach-In amid a week-long round of placard-toting, petition-waving, vigil-keeping activities’To end the war in Vietnam’ all to be climaxed by a’March on Washington.’9

It is crucial to understand that the central issue here is not that some professors have violated the rights of others to speak freely. To emphasize this is to miss the significant intellectual issue: hissing, groaning, jeering, or walking out on guest speakers are a repudiation of thought and thus make a mockery of the “house of intellect.”¹º

Biased Presentations

Another way professors demonstrate their intolerance of opposing views is, ironically, through their tolerance of one-sided presentations. It is intellectually defensible to argue for a certain point of view, say, concerning the causes of poverty, or crime, or war. It is then up to the minds of others to assess whether the argument can withstand the application of rigorous, disciplined thinking. But if, for example, students are constantly subjected to one-sided views concerning subjects which abound in controversy among experts and are not even exposed to the opposing views in an objective, scholarly fashion, the professor is, unwittingly or not, supporting the norm of indoctrination.

This was a key argument I presented in opposing the format. Indeed, it may be the sign of intellectualism of the highest order for a person not to take the time to hear bias-ridden speeches. (On the other hand, the intellectual might well attend in order to study another specimen of propaganda.) of the University Forum on my own campus last, year. This forum, entitled: “University Forum on Social Change,” presented a series of speakers who were chosen because of their political ideologies. Moreover, instead of seeing to it that diverse ideologies were given equal representation, one-sided views prevailed. Finally, and most importantly, this course was given for academic credit. Now, of course, every professor and administrator should have realized the implication this has for the intellectual integrity of any of the courses in the curriculum. The idea of granting academic credit is based, at bottom, on the premise that the student is being exposed to and learning from a professor who is deemed qualified because of his academic credentials. If this is not the case, why give academic credit? Why have disciplines? Graduate school programs? Degrees? Professors?

Techniques of Propaganda

I might well assign my students to hear one-sided speeches all year in order to provide them with examples of how ideologues use various techniques of propaganda in order to win converts. Thus, they may be instructed to look for and report on examples of connotative speech geared to arouse the audience to the “right” response, for the appeals to numbers and authority, for the failure to acknowledge the conflicting views of reputable scholars, for the failure to acknowledge basic assumptions, for the begging of questions, for making generalizations from insufficient evidence, and so on. Through such assignments, the students would be trained to develop their minds so that they would be able to make decisions for themselves. These carefully conducted procedures would be in keeping with the educational philosophy which holds that a basic function of the professor is to enhance the intellectual power of his students. It recognizes that the acquisition of such power does not occur by the simple exposure to various ideologies. Rather, it assumes that the development of effective thinking is a most difficult task. It assumes that the mind cannot grow under all conditions, but must be carefully nurtured. This is a basic reason for insisting on vigorous standards in professional disciplines and academic courses. To assume that students already have the tools necessary for clear and responsible thinking, and therefore can protect themselves from being misled when confronted with a series of “stimulating” speeches, is to suggest the irrelevance of the professor.

Freedom Violated

There are those who will hold that the demand for high standards in an academic course contradicts the virtue of tolerance in that it infringes on the freedom of teachers, students and, in the case cited above, the speakers as well. I can respond to this no better than to quote the words of the historian Arthur Bestor:

To insist that instruction must meet the exacting standards of scholarship is not to infringe upon freedom of teaching. Such infringements occur when pressure groups — whether reactionary or radical — force the schools to conform to their preconceived ideas, to limit the curriculum, to censor textbooks, or to forbid the teaching of controversial subjects. Scientists and scholars must vigorously resist such efforts to impose upon the schools any narrow dogma in politics, economics, religion, or science, for learning itself is thereby threatened with destruction. They must also resist anti-intellectualism in the schools themselves, for if freedom of thinking and respect for intellectual effort are undermined there, it will be easy for demagogues to convince a larger public that intellectual effort is of little value in any case, and that freedom of thought is not worth preserving.¹¹

There are even some professors who not only do not see anything wrong with indoctrination but openly espouse it. To illustrate, Professor George Adams, a self-proclaimed radical teacher at the Wisconsin State University at Whitewater apparently sees nothing wrong in using the classroom as a setting for attacking the status quo.

But whether the radical criticism is from the point of view of Marxism (Lukacs), women’s liberation (Millett), Anarchy (Goodman), or Black Power (Thelwell), its purpose is always the same — to subvert [my italics] the existent bourgeois culture.¹2

It is important to stress that Mr. Adams is not simply calling for the presentation of “radical views” to the students. If this were the case, it would hardly be new. Indeed the university has fought long and hard for the right of scholars to present controversial material to their students. Mr. Adams is calling for something else: The use of the classroom to indoctrinate students to the professor’s own political ideology.

To argue that this open espousal of indoctrination is rare on campus is to miss its real significance. The fact that it occurs at all, without a corresponding sense of bewilderment, alarm, and outrage by the faculty as a whole, indicates not only the lack of any real commitment to the open, receptive mind that is guided, nevertheless, by the highest standards of scholarship, but the degree to which the university has become a normless institution.

The Virtue of Humility

Closely related to the virtue of tolerance, and possibly a condition which must precede it, is intellectual humility. It is the attitude which makes us acutely aware of the limitations of our own minds, limited not only by the available resources of the brain, but the ignorance of or failure to comprehend what other minds have discovered.

To proclaim the virtue of humility is not to suggest that the tongue must forever be silent —that true knowledge is an illusion and that therefore one man’s perception of it is as good as an-other’s. To assert such things is to reach the end of reason and to exalt the god of absurdity. In such a state, surely, all conversation, from the problem-solving of the coffee klatch to the painstaking analyses of the seminar becomes redundant. We might as well moan and arm wrestle.

No, the virtue of humility does not imply all of this. But it does demand that the knowledge the professor offers to the public is presented with full awareness of the mistakes of the past and the possibility for errors in the present. It demands that he not attempt to coerce others, either physically or through some psychological device, to accept his views. It demands that he refrain from making claims on controversial issues without demonstrating how his intellectual skills led him to accept one point of view rather than another.

It is not a significant test of humility when a professor acknowledges in an abstract sense that he does not know it all, that what he perceives to be the truth may turn out to be false, that his enthusiasm for a certain point of view is tempered not only by the recognition of his own fallibility but by the knowledge that sincere and reputable scholars disagree with him. The test comes when the professor is confronted with the task of responding to a social crisis — to a problem that heightens the emotions of the public. Will he practice the virtue of humility at this moment or not? If not, it shows the superficiality of his commitment to the abstract principle of intellectual humility, and at the same time indicates the priority he gives to an ideological position or to the whims and emotions of the moment.

There are signs that some professors are either unaware of, fail to see its importance, or simply and arrogantly scoff at the virtue of humility. Ironically, these signs seem to be pronounced in times of social crisis. It is during these times when various professors demonstrate that they are no different than the public which they claim to be teaching. Like the most avid partisan of some special interest group, these professors clamor that others “see the light” and follow their lead.

In Times of Crisis

It is the time that petitions and resolutions begin to circulate, when placards and bumper stickers become more evident, when cartoons and editorials appear on office doors. To illustrate: A resolution was introduced and supported by a number of professors at a University of Wisconsin-Waukesha faculty meeting which read in part that the faculty “condemns the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.” A petition was circulated on campus and signed by some professors which included the phrase that the “National Guard are the hired killers of the U.S. government.” Cartoons and editorials have appeared on office doors which depict various public figures as heroes or villains — from idolizing Daniel Berrigan as a paragon of virtue to presenting Richard Nixon as a symbol of sin.

It would be a serious error to criticize these faculty members on ideological grounds — that is, to condemn their actions because they reflect antagonistic views. Such a criticism is merely political and self-serving. As a consequence it fails to provide an intellectual rationale for condemning such tactics per se. Thus, if a resolution were proposed hailing the U.S. involvement in Cambodia, if a petition were circulated which praised the National Guard in its handling of the Kent State Affair or if cartoons were to appear equating Father Berrigan with the devil and Nixon with the savior, we would be left with the same problem. The significant criticism to make of professors who do these things is that knowingly or unknowingly (I’m not sure which is worse) they are proclaiming that the techniques of the Madison Avenue huckster, whose effectiveness is related to the unthinking reactions of the masses, have a proper place in an institution of higher learning; that to over-simplify, to mislead, to appeal to emotions, to give only one side — to violate the most fundamental elements of scholarship — is all right, as long as it promotes the “correct” view. This is the end for minds that are bankrupt, as far as intellectual humility is concerned.

The Need to Explain

Now it may be true that the U.S. invasion of Cambodia was wrong for various reasons, that the description of the National Guard as “hired killers” is accurate and not misleading, that Father Berrigan is a virtuous man and that Richard Nixon is not. But it is a gross act of arrogance to imply that such things are self-evident — that a simple proclamation from a professor’s pen will do. The virtue of humility does not suggest silence, but it does call for demonstrability. It implies that if the professor has some knowledge to offer mankind on pressing matters he cannot rely on his status, but must demonstrate how he came to these conclusions, by what processes of thought and by what kinds of evidence. To ask this of a professor is to ask him to be no more than what he claims to be: an educator. To fail to ask — to see nothing wrong or indeed to see something noble in these simplistic resolutions, petitions, cartoons, and the like — is to discredit the ideal of scholarship and perpetuate one of its most deadly enemies: intellectual arrogance.

It may be argued at this point, and rightly so, that this long discourse on tolerance and humility is not warranted. It is an old refrain. Moreover, like so many ethical appeals, whether voiced from the pulpit or the political forum, this call to high principles in academic life is rationalized away or soon forgotten as we go about our daily chores. I have no illusions about the matter. But, unless one rejects the contention that ideas have consequences, it is necessary to reaffirm those things which can help to restore to the university the integrity that it once had.

 

***

Freedom of Opinion

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

JOHN STUART MILL, On Liberty