This is the first of a series of posts I plan to publish on diversity of viewpoints.
Last February, I listened to a program on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Radio’s Ideas entitled “The Politics of the Professoriat: Political diversity on campus“. (I highly recommend the episode.) The main guest for the episode was Jonathan Haidt of Heterodox Academy, and his argument was, universities have become left-leaning and that there is a left-leaning bias of research in the social sciences and it does a disservice to students. I have not done empirical research to confirm his statement but my opinion is that he may not be wrong. I also believe that dominance of one viewpoint in university campuses, regardless of the viewpoint, detracts universities from fulfilling their mission of educating their students well and expanding the thinking horizons of future generations.
I have always believed in debates as an opportunity to exhaust possible controversies or differing viewpoints concerning an issue and always loved them. Recently, for my class in Transportation Policy, I was assigned to argue for urban sprawl and against compact development. My default position and that of many urban planning students and urban planners is that sprawl is bad and compact development good. Academic literature is full of articles, books, commentaries, and so on in support of compact development. To my dismay, there were only a few studies in support of the opposite viewpoint, which is less popular in urban planning circles.
While reading the small amount of literature I found in support of sprawl, I was surprised how I found some of the arguments convincing. In class, I shared my thoughts with one of my classmates who was also assigned to present arguments in favor of urban sprawl. He was able to relate. The debate in class was heated; I could not believe the passion with which I argued in favor of sprawl development! My passion was triggered by my disappointment about the academic conformity in my discipline.
Dominant viewpoints need to be contested in urban planning or any other field. If and only if they prevail continuous challenge from opposite viewpoints does their dominance become earned. In the processes, they might need to be modified, rethought, and at times abandoned, too. Professors need to provide their students with opportunities to present arguments in favor of less popular viewpoints to enrich the discussion and demonstrate the need to explore them with equal rigor. Here is a simple analogy to explain. If a journalist presents only one side of a story, we deem their act as biased. Why cannot we apply the same principle in the academic world? In order to contest viewpoints and present students with various sides of “stories”, university and colleges need to be welcoming of faculty and students with diverse viewpoints.
Thoughts? Ideas how that can happen?
Thank you for sharing your thoughts! Yes, I agree with you the discussion could change a lot more than anything else! I had many discussions in my classes, similar to what you did, and I found it very informative and challenging regardless of the topic. As you said, you could not believe you’d be able to defend your point of view because you never read deeply about it. So, to me, it’s similar to many issues we believe in that we never read what others say against nor we put our shoes in the opposite side.