Is Higher Education Opening Student Minds, or Shutting Them?

Policy

Most colleges and universities say something about how they expand a student’s intellectual horizons, but do they?

A recent book by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro (both of Northwestern) entitled Minds Wide Shut laments the rise of “fundamentalist” thinking in a number of aspects of life. The problem is that such habits of mind make it impossible for people to reason with each other because fundamentalism entails a set belief system based on some inerrant text or ideology. Fundamentalists are certain that they have all the answers and anyone who disagrees must be stupid or evil.

Morson and Schapiro point to higher education as contributing to fundamentalism, mainly through faculty who teach “negative” fundamentalism, which is to say that there are no truths. That tends to shut student minds from intellectual exploration.

They have a point there, and, in today’s Martin Center article, I write about what they get right in their attack on fundamentalism, what they miss, and what they get wrong.

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They’re right that in some academic fields, such as literature, negative fundamentalism detracts from learning.

What they miss is that much of our education system, starting in early grades, now exemplifies fundamentalist teaching, with students being preached at over a host of questions (racism and environmentalism, for example) that must be accepted, never questioned.

And what they get hugely wrong is their claim that “market fundamentalism” is a problem. The authors devote many pages to attacking this strawman. Those who argue in favor of laissez-faire and against economic controls by government do not do so from fundamentalist precepts. Moreover, arguing for less government contributes to the debate the authors say they want. For them to suggest that arguments against government interventionism are “fundamentalist” encourages people to shut their minds — exactly what they say is wrong with America.

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