Debate Is Not Central to the College Experience

Here is a very strong memory I have from college.

A group of friends and I decided it might be interesting to see who could gain the most weight in one day. I do not know why we thought this would be interesting, but it is possible that the not-yet-fully-developed frontal lobes of 19-21 year old males had something to do with it. It seemed more interesting than an old-fashioned eating contest, and there was something about it being an entire day (9 am to Midnight) that appealed to us. It was a way to carve up the routine of the semester with an event.

Once the idea took hold among our relatively small group, we announced it to the entire fraternity[1] and discovered there was significant interest in terms of the number of competitors. We set the date, procured the prizes – trophies for both total weight gained and weight gained as a percentage of mass – and asked the fraternity cook to make a bunch of extra stuff we could eat all day.

I believe I gained around eight pounds in the course of the day, stuffing in spaghetti, garlic bread, and chocolate pudding. I felt like Mr. Creosote in the famous Monty Python sketch from Meaning of Lifeunable to eat even a wafer.

I wasn’t even close to winning. Someone gained nearly twenty pounds. Someone else put on over 15% of their body weight.

The young idiots who participated in that contest include people who have gone on to become lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, doctors, bank executives, stay-at-home fathers, writers (that’s me), and all kinds of other things.

I don’t know why this story came to mind when reading a tweet by Johns Hopkins Professor and founder of PersuasionYascha Mounk, in which he said, “What are the top things universities could do to encourage a culture of free debate and inquiry, not just in the classroom but also in dorms and dining halls?” but I think it has to do with what the tweet suggests is supposed To be happening on college campuses, and how specific,and narrow this view seems to be.

Mounk is part of the professional class of concern trolls vis a vis so-called “free inquiry” on campus, and was responding to the latest release of the Heterodox Academy Campus Expression report, which measures how “comfortable” or “reluctant” students feel about discussing controversial topics on campus.

The HxA report utilizes a methodology that should embarrass a membership group of academics, but there’s a panic to fan, so that 39-percent of students feel either “somewhat” (24%) or “very” (15%) reluctant to speak about , for instance “politics,” in class is treated as a cause for concern, despite the majority of students saying they’re “somewhat” or “very” comfortable speaking on politics in class and despite the fact that “comfort” and “reluctance “about speaking are not proxies for free inquiry.

It’s interesting that the group that is worried that students have been “coddled” is treating a perceived lack of comfort as a bug, rather than a feature, but I’ve lost track of the various aspects of the discussion, mostly on purpose because it’s a dumb debate that I vowed not to spend any more of my time on, and yet here I am.[2]

Mounk’s tweet and the focus on the debating of ideas on campuses as some sort of core purpose of the institution is – no offense to the professor from Johns Hopkins – both elicit and self-serving. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for letting a million flowers bloom when it comes to the ideas and attitudes on campus, but the notion that students go to college to debate ideas or that debating ideas is somehow central to the experience and outcomes of a college education is kind of silly measured against the actual lives of college students.

For one, there is no single type of college student. My experience as a member of a fraternity at a big state university is perhaps one common strain of student, but it is not universal. It isn’t even a plurality, even though it is often treated as such.

The top reasons students go to college according to the most recent data from UCLA’s HERI Freshman Survey are (percent saying “very important):

  • To be able to get a better job (84%)
  • To learn more about things that interest me (83%)
  • To get training for a specific career (78%)

It’s not that students are entirely focused on the credential. Three quarters of students say that “to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas” is also very important, but it seems students recognize the deal when it comes to pursuing a post-secondary degree. You’re going to experience stuff and mature along the way, but that’s a byproduct of the main focus, improving one’s economic prospects.

Sometimes that maturing happens by being immature – as was the case with the great one-day weight gain contest. I look back on that person with thirty-plus years of hindsight with a kind of mix of horror and wonder. I’m grateful that I was able to be stupid and make mistakes and figure out what kind of person I wanted to be, which included doing some things I am rather ashamed of in hindsight.

Many of the replies to Mounk’s tweet point out that improving the structural inequities embedded in higher education would do much more to improve campus climate around free expression than any kind of administrative dictates, and I think this is true. Students are primarily concerned about the opinions of their peers. I don’t know how to administrate against that.

We should wish for all students to have the kind of space to explore I benefitted from, but of course many do not arrive to college with the kind of economic and academic slack that young white dudes from the Chicago suburbs like me come coupled with. Thanks to my AP credits, I could take a low course load. Thanks to the relative low cost at the time and my parents footing the bill, I had every advantage to the full range of college experiences.

In fact, more debate may be the last thing that students need on college campuses. writing at his blog, Blue Book Diaries,[3] Jonathan Wilson does his own reflecting on Mounk’s tweet saying that “When we’ve got the entire internet at our disposal, the culture of free debate and inquiry is the least exceptional thing college can offer.”

Wilson continues, “What intellectually curious people really want from college is friendship. The kind that can change the mind as well as heal the spirit.”

My college friends and I weren’t exclusively engaging in nonsense[4] to keep ourselves occupied. We spent lots of hours talking about things that mattered, goals in life, what would make us happy, relationships. A striking number of my closest friend group met their future spouses in college, and for those that did, the vast majority remain married. I can’t help but feel we had some sort of influence on each other on this front.

We discussed, rather than debated. We opened up and shared, which would require some measure of vulnerability, a trait which is anathema to winning a debate. The desire for safe spaces, for warnings, the things that Heterodox Academy members object to so strongly are really just a desire for a little understand, a little space to figure stuff out.

Seeing the academic institution as a place of ideological debate and combat is not really conducive to that goal.

I told myself that I was going to stop debating these things with the Yascha Mounks and Heterodox Academies of the world because I told myself that there is more important work to do when it comes to helping students and institutions thrive.

Having now spent a good chunk of time on this post, I’m more convinced of that now than before.

[1] Yes, I was in a fraternity. I was even president of the fraternity my senior year.

[2] 12-percent of students express at least some discomfort with discussing a “noncontroversial” subject, so I suppose this is supposed to be the baseline we’re aiming for? That isnt clear to me.

[3] If you’re on Twitter and not following Prof. Wilson, I highly recommend it, and reading his blog as well. It’s a consistent source of thoughtful commentary on teaching, learning, and higher ed in general.

[4] Though, I also recall an epic series of tournaments of Nintendo Tecmo Bowl football where we would play entire seasons and then playoffs. If your game was up on the schedule, you had up to two hours to get it in or the player who couldn’t participate would forfeit. Did I miss class to keep my Tecmo Chicago Bears in the playoff hunt? You bet.

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