Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Colleges and Universities are Good

My plan was to post once a week, but I was thinking through some issues related to a recent survey and ended up writing about it and figured I would post. The survey was reported here: http://www.people-press.org/2017/07/10/sharp-partisan-divisions-in-views-of-national-institutions/
I believe in research and education. I believe that a healthy society will encourage education and research. And I believe that research and educational institutions like colleges and universities are generally good things for the health of a society.  Have researchers been wrong? Sure. Have those errors had negative ramifications for society? Sure. Still, on the whole, I believe that research and research institutions are good for society.
Research, of course, involves adopting new ideas. And adopting new ideas means change.  Both of these things are difficult, and many people resist them.
The recent study shows that over one in three people in the US (36%) think that colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the country. As someone who is interested in research and the search for better understanding of our world, and who believes in the value of research institutions and educational institutions (including, of course, colleges and universities), I find this extremely disturbing.
I fundamentally believe that research is good.  On an unconscious level, I believe that there are real facts to be discovered—there are real truths to be discovered.  Consciously, I am very aware that it is not quite so simple—that is to say that personally, I see logical problems with the idea of “real truths” or “facts,” and I cannot see that there is any consensus amongst those interested in describing the limits of knowledge: some people believe that knowledge is objective, others believe it is political. Logically, I am confident that knowledge is shaped by political forces. Nonetheless, I fundamentally believe that humans can generate explanations of the world that lead to more effective action.
It is important to acknowledge that researchers and the research consensus are not always right. (It is overly simplistic to talk about theories being “right” or “wrong,” but it is efficient and useful, and I will do it here.)  The history of science is a history of old accepted knowledge being replaced by new ideas: the geocentric view is replaced by the heliocentric; phlogiston theory is replaced by oxidation; etc. 
The pragmatic effects of research are most easily seen in the sciences. (Which makes me wonder whether whether there would be a sharp divide on opinions of science in colleges/universities and the non-science parts of colleges/universities.). But in social sciences, too, academic theories play out in the real world. Economic theories shape economic policies. Educational theories shape educational policies. Theories of crime shape criminal policies. Etc. Etc.
Research leads to innovation.  Innovation leads to progress.  The value of progress is not always clear, but on the whole I believe in progress. Despite all the times that theories have led humanity down dangerous paths, I believe that better understanding of the world generally contributes more to human life than it takes away. I admit that is a value judgement. That value judgement may be at the heart of the divide between those who believe that colleges and universities are positive and those who believe they are negative. 
At the heart of research is the belief that we can develop new ideas that are better than the old ideas.  As a result, research is, in a way, antithetical to conservatism. The the extent that conservatism wants to retain the status quo, and that researchers like to challenge the status quo, it is not surprising that there is a conflict.
And saying that makes we wonder about the role of religion in shaping these opinions about colleges/universities.  The report on the poll does not discuss whether religious differences affect views of colleges/universities, but it would make sense that someone who believes that a holy scripture holds ultimate truth, would also think that those who spread contrary views have a negative influence.  Thus, for example, we would expect creationists to be hostile to institutions that teach evolution, and, those who believe in strict patriarchal gender roles to be hostile to those who teach feminism.  I wonder how many of the 36% who believe that colleges are a negative influence also are very religious, and hold the scripture of their belief as an ultimate truth? I suppose that if I learned that 36% of Americans were creationists, then this result would not be surprising at all.  It would still be disturbing to me because the theory of evolution plays a critical role in medical science and other fields that have an important direct impact on people, and I think such research should continue, while I imagine that creationists would not support such research (NB: I say “I imagine” to indicate that this is a guess, not a claim based on empirical evidence, and I want to recognize the danger in generalizing about the beliefs of any group of people).
I imagine that there are other reasons that people think that colleges and universities are a negative influence.  I suppose it’s possible to believe in the value of research and innovation, but think that the institutions are flawed. I wonder whether people with such beliefs are a large proportion of those who view colleges/universities as negative.

The main headline from the study was the political partisan divide in attitudes. While I do think it’s an issue worthy of discussion, I’ll save it for another post.  For the moment, I just want to reiterate my belief in the value of research institutions.

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