In 1978, the Supreme Court's Bakke decision banned overt racial discrimination in college admissions but left the door open to using racial criteria if a school could justify them in some nonracial way. In response, the Left began touting the absolute necessity of “diversity" in education.
A quarter century later, when a major lawsuit threatened to topple the whole affirmative-action edifice, an amicus curiae brief supporting race-based admissions on the grounds of “diversity” was filed by the core of the American educational establishment. Among the 28 signatories were the American Council of Education, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Association of University Professors, the Association of American Colleges and University, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, the Educational Testing Service, and the United Negro College Fund.
The amicus brief asserted:
Diversity contributes to the process of learning, on which the powers of reason depend. A precept of developmental psychology is that we learn by formulating, revising, and refining theories of the world. Learning occurs when our model of the world is shaken by new facts, beliefs, and viewpoints.
True learning requires intellectual diversity.
Of course, this argument provides no basis for racial discrimination in education, unless one speciously argues that a person’s ideas are determined by his race. But considered by itself, the diversity argument has merit. The open clash of opposing ideas is a powerful teacher. Education is—or should be—a process of formulating, revisiting, and refining our beliefs. And that does occur more often when our model of the world is challenged—and even shaken—by new facts, beliefs, and viewpoints.
Ironically, this argument that is now so fervently embraced by the today’s Left provides the most powerful possible reason to break the Left's ideological stranglehold on the intellectual culture in our schools.
Sixty years ago, William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale held that the university ought to teach the ideas of those who pay the bills, namely, the alumni and parents. But even to conservative critics of the universities, this sounded petulant at best and anti-intellectual at worst—rather like a father explaining to his teenage son that because his parents support him financially, he shouldn’t question their political and religious views.
Today, we have a far better and far more effective argument at hand—and one that rests on the education establishment's own premises: True learning requires intellectual diversity
. This is the argument I recently made to my own secondary school alma mater, The Kinkaid School in Houston, Texas
, in the wake of a highly publicized revolt by parents against the school’s Left-dominated faculty.
I have decided to publish this letter for two reasons. First, the Kinkaid problem is really a mainstream educational problem, so the letter should be considered more a generic critique of education than an admonishment to one school. Secondly, the letter’s line of reasoning may be useful for others making a similar case to any biased and intolerant educational institutions.
The McGee Letter
When I attended Kinkaid in the early 1970s (see photo below), intellectual diversity at the school was instrumental in my development. But when my children began attending Kinkaid,
I found out that the school was not presenting a classical liberal viewpoint in any of its classes; quite the opposite. Therefore, for the last five years, I have volunteered to teach a class on free-market capitalism during Kinkaid’s three-week Interim Term.
My worst suspicions of educational bias were confirmed by this experience. Not only did the teachers not teach the history and value of liberty, they did not understand it well enough to be able to teach it—and they did not really feel a need to understand it. The students loved what I presented to them. Still, I was discouraged that I was reaching so few in the student body.
Then, late last year, political correctness boiled over at Kinkaid
, and a torrent of pent-up dissent followed that has set the administration back on its heels. That gave me a perfect opportunity to put my thoughts on paper.
Here is what happened. As part of an all-high-school pep rally before the conference championship game, Kinkaid’s football players were poised to perform a skit in which they dressed up as the opposing team’s female cheerleaders. This was an old skit at the school. But just as this climax to the pep rally was to begin, the assembly was cancelled by a shout from the upper school principal, and the packed auditorium was dismissed. Bewilderment and anger followed. It turned out that the rally was cut short at the demand of a few vocal faculty members outraged over what they saw as “negative gender stereotyping.”
Some of these teachers will not be with the school next year. As it turns out, this was not the first time that they had disturbed, if not infuriated, many students and parents over the course of many years. Tongues had been held out of a fear of retaliation (lower grades, poor college recommendations, siblings not accepted into the school, and so forth). But that reticence changed as the result of a letter to Kinkaid’s Board of Trustees by Hugh “Skip” McGee, titled “The Tipping Point,” that got onto the Web and was read by hundreds if not thousands.
His 2,200-word missive presented example after example of political correctness and Leftist invective at the school. “This letter is about much more than a cancelled pep rally,” he explained. “It’s about taking back control of Kinkaid School.” But even with the faculty changes, whether this will occur remains to be seen.
McGee’s November 2009 letter resulted in local and international media attention. Part of this was because of Kinkaid’s elite status in Houston; part was because McGee, formerly with Lehman Brothers and now with Barclay’s, is reputedly Wall Street’s best-paid banker. Thus, he himself—and not only his letter—became part of the debate.
McGee’s letter focused on what I see as symptoms of a larger problem. Yes, political correctness, Left-wing ideology, and even promoting alternative lifestyles are not what most parents want for their educational dollar. But one must be philosophically precise when diagnosing the problem and prescribing the remedy.
For example, one might sympathize with McGee’s complaint against a teacher who told his son’s class that investment bankers (including McGee, of course) are “sleazeballs.” (McGee’s son tearfully protested; the teacher eventually apologized and was given a second chance.) But a critic might say that McGee can’t have it both ways. If he wants Kinkaid to say “Grow up” to kids who are hyper-sensitive about “gender stereotyping,” then he must also say “Grow up” to kids who father’s professions come under stereotypical criticism. True, judging by what we know, the teacher involved was more of a bully than a model educator. Yet what a high school student believed to be an attack on his family is not sufficient reason to silence his instructor—especially after an apology was proffered.
Thus, my own letter does not criticize Leftist teaching per se; it criticizes the school’s leadership for betraying the deeply espoused value of diversity of thought. Such an argument, I believe, targets the fundamental weak point in the Left’s ideological monopoly. Their egalitarian premises imply that all voices must be heard. Yet, clearly, the one voice that is not being heard in today’s intellectual institutions is the pro-liberty voice. That is the contradiction on which we must challenge the Left.
Here is my letter of February 12th to the Kinkaid board of trustees and headmaster.
I wish to share my thoughts and offer some recommendations in light of your efforts to balance and improve the educational mission of our school. As you may know, I was a “lifer” at Kinkaid (K–12). My father went to Kinkaid at its original location, and my two children have graduated from Kinkaid. Also, I have been a volunteer Interim Term teacher at Kinkaid for the last five years in order to introduce students to a sophisticated view of principled entrepreneurship and heroic capitalism.
Having seen the situation from both the inside and the outside, I conclude that there is indeed a problem at Kinkaid: a lack of intellectual diversity. The good news is that the problem is correctable. And, if it is any consolation, the same problem exists at many other educational institutions, although it too is increasingly under challenge.
The problem and opportunity can be examined with these questions:
1. Why is intellectual diversity important?
2. Is there a lack of intellectual diversity at Kinkaid, and if so, why?
3. How can Kinkaid achieve intellectual diversity if it is absent?
The Importance of Intellectual Diversity
The overwhelming value of intellectual diversity hardly needs my defense. The Athenian practice of debate made ancient Greek civilization the foundation of the West’s scientific and humanistic civilization, for starters. But more to the point of this letter: Is intellectual diversity important to primary and secondary education?
Obviously, during their pre-college years, children must absorb a large body of fact, largely on the basis of teacher say-so. But because this knowledge will be used later in life to integrate new information, it is important that children be exposed—at the level of their understanding, and time permitting—to at least a sampling of the evidence and arguments that underlie the facts they are learning. It is important that they know the teacher’s say-so is just a pair of training wheels that they must learn not to rely on.
The Kinkaid Teacher must want to know about differing views in great detail.
For example, very young students learn that the Earth is not flat but round because the teacher says so. But if a student asks how the teacher knows, the student should be commended and the issue explained at an appropriate level (e.g., when a ship comes into view, we first see the top of the mast). Never should the teacher discourage inquiry by appealing to authority, nor should an educator impart the attitude that “whatever you feel is true” (the anti-intellectual philosophy of relativism that is a creed in contemporary higher education).
But well before a student is out of grammar school, he or she is bound to encounter some of the socio-political questions that our society disputes but that a teacher may feel very strongly—even certain—about. This is where the issue of intellectual diversity first arises. Can a faculty that is of one mind about the overwhelming majority of today’s socio-political issues be trusted to train students in thinking critically about those issues?
I believe not.
A few of the nation’s most elite educators may be able to lead their students through a Socratic dialogue in which the teacher himself betrays no hint of his own ideas. But when we are talking about ordinary teachers, such disguise asks too much of human nature. A good teacher should be able to state, accurately and persuasively, the evidence and arguments for an opposed view. But to sustain, year after year, a mask of indifference to all of the issues that are discussed in his classroom is scarcely possible. But this is not necessary if a faculty is intellectually diverse.
Therefore, if Kinkaid wants to prepare its students for a scientific culture where knowledge depends on evidence and for a democratic society where influence depends on argument, it must ensure that its faculty exhibits a diversity of intellectual outlook—at least within the fields of social science and the humanities.
A Lack of Intellectual Diversity at Kinkaid
I offer the following suggestive anecdotes for consideration.
- Visiting the homeroom of one of my children’s teachers some years ago, I noticed a good many books on environmentalism. They were of a single viewpoint: Malthusianism (market failure and alarmism).
- I have examined the current textbooks used in upper-level American history and upper-level U.S. government. Both regurgitate the old-fashioned Progressive view that government officials always wear the white hats (the ‘romantic’ view of government). The history text does not consider the possibility that New Deal activism prolonged and worsened the Great Depression by creating economic waste and business uncertainty. The Government text does not develop the argument that bureaucracies are driven mainly by public officials’ desire for power and influence, an insight from the Public Choice school of economics that is now in the mainstream of thought. (This is but one example for each text ….)
- For some of my Interim Term sessions, I combined my class with another being taught from a left-of-center viewpoint. The teacher was sincere and had good interpersonal skills. The students were engaged. But the teacher, not understanding economics or business competition, made basic errors that skewed the whole discussion. In response, I simply had my students look up some Wikipedia definitions to get the other side of the issue.
- Recently (January 2010), I noticed some “good books” displays in the Upper School Wing and in the library. The political books all shared the same partisan outlook. One of the displays had two copies of the late Senator Kennedy’s autobiography. It seemed to me symbolic of the faculty’s left-of-center mentality.
In addition to these observations of pervasive leftism at Kinkaid, I have also had a number of experiences while teaching there that suggest this lack of intellectual diversity has led to a lack of intellectual respect for those who differ.
- My advertised Interim Term class presents students with a different view on economics and business. I have a number of publications and have lectured at many colleges and universities. But never in my five years at Kinkaid has a teacher introduced himself/herself and engaged me in a discussion about my viewpoint. Not even a “Hello, I am …. Tell me about ….”
- I have introduced myself to strategic Kinkaid teachers and have given them books and other materials that I thought would be of interest—but to little avail.
- After I addressed a science class on global warming and offered skepticism about climate alarmism, the teachers chose not to continue a discussion with me on this issue. Not only that, but a few months later the same teachers arranged for a global-warming lecture (in the Papadopoulos series) that turned out to be extremely biased toward alarmism—even concluding that lifestyle changes were congruent with saving the planet. I followed up with the Rice professor (with good results), but the damage had been done as far as Kinkaid was concerned.
- Some gentle, germane emails from me did not elicit a response from teachers, not even a courteous acknowledgement of receipt.
To be sure, I have had very cordial relations with the organizers of Interim Term and my faculty liaison. No one has ever been impolite to me. But the lack of intellectual curiosity, of give-and-take, even of a willingness to listen to a dissenter, is notable. I can only imagine how an impressionable student would react to having his or her views marginalized or even cold-shouldered by a teacher.
Why is there such a lack of intellectual diversity at Kinkaid? Well, it is a problem throughout academia, including graduate schools, where a decided minority of faculty describe themselves as conservative or libertarian.
Kinkaid should conduct a spirited search for faculty members who champion classical-liberal, free-market ideas and who are in all other respects effective educators.
And in that biased environment, many of Kinkaid’s teachers were educated (even at the Ph.D. level). They themselves have simply not been confronted with sophisticated presentations of alternative worldviews. (Nor have they read many books with which they disagree, preferring to learn about their opponents through the writings of authors with whom they do agree.) Human nature being what it is, far too many have not chosen to open their minds and make mid-course corrections in their worldview. After all, they are smart, and smart people read the New York Times and listen to National Public Radio.
And there is the ‘safe harbor’ of good intentions—the belief that anyone who is well intended must be right. But as one philosopher has said: “It is one thing to wish to have truth on our side, and another thing to wish sincerely to be on the side of truth." The latter would be core to a challenge-culture ethic of teaching at Kinkaid (see below).
Then, too, people who go into education are often passing up the higher salaries that at least some of them could make in business. Not unnaturally, they want to believe that they are making a sacrifice on behalf of some nobler cause, such as teaching their charges about the limits and perils of for-profit business and of free markets. This self-selection problem puts conservatives into business and their opponents into teaching—not good for diversity and learning.
Kinkaid Can Promote Intellectual Diversity
Diversity, I believe, can be accomplished only through “affirmative action.” That is, Kinkaid should conduct a spirited search for faculty members who champion classical-liberal, free-market ideas and who are in all other respects effective educators. Frankly, I do not think you will have any difficulty at all attracting such candidates, precisely because such people have great difficulty finding jobs at the college level.
In addition, I believe that Kinkaid must make clear to its entire community—children, teachers, parents, alumni, and friends—that it is launching a long-term effort to foster intellectual diversity as a habit of mind. The school should announce an intellectual “challenge culture,” in which learning is expected to proceed by discussion, debate, and dissent, respectfully offered and considered.
I am not speaking of frivolous dorm-room bull sessions. I am speaking about employing the “power of opposites” to help students understand core issues. Here is what one of my students wrote in a class paper this year:
What has appealed to me most throughout “The Free Society” is the power of opposites. Before this class began, I was often criticized at home by my family for having only one opinion, and if they were saying anything that was different in the slightest manner, then I would tune them out. However … I … understand how conflicting ideas help you to better interpret a situation. Not only do they help with interpretation, but they also assist you in formulating your own opinion.
I believe that my students’ evaluations will bear out my belief: Kids love the excitement of clashing viewpoints. And it is intriguing to them to discover that smart people think very differently—and figure out why.
Teachers at Kinkaid should know that a challenge culture is (no pun intended) very challenging. At minimum, each faculty member should be expected to:
- Understand opposing viewpoints at a high level of sophistication;
- Explain opposing viewpoints sympathetically and never sarcastically. Make clear that other people have important reasons for holding opposing views—and present them as if that (opposing) person were present.
- Encourage the expression of opposing views; and
- Use his or her greater sophistication to help students develop arguments for different views, most especially for views opposed to the teacher’s own. It should go without saying that a teacher ought never to bully students for holding opposing or non-mainstream views.
The Kinkaid Teacher must want to know about differing views in great detail. There are many summer seminars for teachers that attempt to redress the intellectual bias that Kinkaid’s faculty have most likely received in college. Encourage teachers to take advantage of these (diversity training) programs and weed out teachers that do not embrace diversity and self-education.
Ultimately, however, the main factor in promoting a challenge culture will be putting Kinkaid’s teachers in direct contact with peers who hold differing views, so that they can see the good intentions and dedicated scholarship that animate the “other side.” Competition is a good thing in academia, as it is in business.
This is an exciting opportunity for Kinkaid, not only to improve and energize its own curriculum, but also to help bring intellectual diversity to other educational institutions, by example and by the students it sends forth.
To cite my own experience at Kinkaid: I had a special teacher who introduced me and some classmates to political diversity in the early 1970s. As a result, we went on to challenge the orthodoxies that dominated our colleges and universities, and some of my classmates are doing so still, but now as professors. Of course, I am also trying something of the sort in my own line of work.
Much more can be said, particularly about small steps that could be taken to eradicate the left-of-center groupthink that infects Kinkaid in deep and important ways. To this end, I would be delighted to discuss these matters further with the task force, students, faculty, or trustees.
Robert L. Bradley Jr., Class of ’73
Rob Bradley is CEO and founder of the Institute for Energy Research and the author of the forthcoming Edison
to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies, the second volume of his trilogy on political capitalism. He is author of two cover stories for
The New Individualist, “The Two Faces of American Capitalism” (May 2008) and “The Fall of Ken Lay: An Insider’s View” (April 2006).