Chief Purpose of Universities: Academic Discourse and the Diversity of Ideas

Author: Bowen, William M. and Michael Schwartz
Bowen, William M. and Michael Schwartz
Civil societies around the world today are arguably facing existential crises in political, economic, scientific, technological, religious, moral, and environmental spheres, many of which leave them politically divided and torn asunder by conflict. This manuscript makes and elucidates the assumption that universities have a primary role in shaping collective efforts at responding to this situation. The thesis is that the human intellect and the knowledge it produces comprise the primary adaptive mechanism of the human species, that the advancement of knowledge is the key to solving, ameliorating or adapting to the crises, and that the role of the university in advancing knowledge is specifically one that is most fully, clearly, and coherently conceptualized in terms of the post-Darwinian logic of evolutionary adaptation. The idea-variation hypothesis stipulates specifically that the rate of progress and advancement in knowledge throughout society at any time is equal to the variation of ideas at that time, and therefore, given that the aim of universities is to create, preserve, transmit and find new applications for knowledge, the most effective strategy is to conserve the variation of ideas. Accordingly, by protecting the free and open expression of ideas, beliefs, and opinions, universities protect the rights of individuals to seek self-fulfillment and the attainment of truth, to provide for open discussion in legitimate democratic decision-making, and to enable flexibility and adaptation to change. The effects of this include creating the conditions most conducive for endogenous economic development and perpetuating the values of civil society. The key obstacles to progress (the enemies of the university) are idea-vetting systems that effectively keep the state of ideational culture behind the state of technological culture. These include authoritarianism, supernaturalism, corporatism, irrationalism, and political correctness. The nature of these obstacles and their implications for the advancement of knowledge and perpetuation of the values of civil society, are examined. In becoming an institution dedicated explicitly to conscious efforts at conserving the variation of ideas, universities stimulate job growth, enhance careers, improve life after work, and fortify the defense of liberty in society.


“...Bowen and Schwartz also understand the importance of science and technology in the university. They decry the dilution of the curriculum and of teaching loads for senior faculty, which result in students getting less education in science and technology than they once did...As the authors concede, political correctness was born of legitimate concerns, but it has spun out of control. Their critics will argue that excesses are rare and minor. Bowen and Schwartz are right, though, that political correctness pervasively chilled academic discourse and inquiry. Such intolerance spreads unless schools affirmatively defend academic freedom. Sadly, administrators fearing personal criticism often cave in to the demands of political correctness....No treatise can dramatically alter higher education. The interests threatened by maximizing the variation of ideas will not be won over by any argument, however, rational and cogent it may be. But this volume will inform those who care about the public interest and perhaps inspire them to help defend our embattled universities.” – (from the Foreword) Dr. George W. Dent, Jr., Schott-van den Eynden Professor of Law, Case School of Law

“The book provides not only an insightful cutting edge perspective but builds that perspective from strong philosophical roots. Further, although it is critical of both universities and their environments, it is understanding about the evolution of both. It understands how we got to our present antagonistic situation with the "outside world" and it's tolerant of the necessity of divergence and difference between the university world and the world outside the university. This book is NOT an ideological treatise but rather argues for the fundamental importance of tolerating different ideas … This book deserves careful reading for the academic community … I recommend this book to those who wish to dig deeply into the role of higher education in today's society and to those willing to be challenged. It is an excellent piece of scholarship!” – Kingsley E. Haynes, Dean and University Professor of Public Policy School of Public Policy, George Mason University

“This volume, by a Professor and the President at Cleveland State University, is a brilliant assessment of the role and importance of the university as an institution in American society. Bowen and Schwartz see America as facing grave social and environmental crises whose amelioration will depend on the society’s capacity to maintain a ready stock of competing ideas. Achieving this capacity becomes ever more difficult as the society’s social and technological systems become ever more complex and intertwined. The prime keeper of the vital storehouse of new and competing ideas is the university. Yet, because of pressures for political correctness, corporate funding, and cultural conformity, the university’s ability to generate and maintain an adequate variety of ideas has become seriously limited. Among other factors, this is caused by a frequent presence on campus of a bitter politics based on racial identity, dogmatic contention by religious and right-wing ideologues, and refusals by faddish postmodernists to accept the validity of established and verified knowledge. The authors urge that to correct this situation, the university should adopt more cross-disciplinary and problem-oriented curricula, install more thoughtful, courageous and steadfast leadership, do more to encourage dissent and toleration of unorthodox views, and persuade financial sources to provide greater investment of unrestricted funds. In their book, Bowen and Schwartz demonstrate considerable intellectual pluck by insisting that the important diversity within the university is of ideas, not race. Other positions they take which will infuriate the liberal intellectual community are that knowledge is not a matter of subjective interpretation but the use of good logic and solid data; and that with such knowledge, definable progress toward a higher order of human life is attainable. This book is highly original, brilliantly and coherently argued, immensely broad in scope, fascinatingly multidisciplinary, and extremely erudite.” - Dr. Charles T. Goodsell, Professor Emeritus, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

"William Bowen and Michael Schwartz have taken a forceful position that defines the critical role of universities beyond their obvious and most common roles in contributing to job training and economic development.Bowen and Schwartz begin by reminding us that universities exist first and foremost “to create, preserve, transmit, and find new applications of knowledge so as to enhance free choice throughout society.” They propose that the route to success on this score is to maximize the variation of ideas in much the same way as Darwin’s theorem of natural selection bases the fitness of any organism on its genetic variance. Hence, those factors and conditions that limit idea variation become enemies of knowledge creation, preservation, transmission, and application. Five identified classes of these enemies of knowledge, and therefore enemies of the university, are Authoritarianism, Supernaturalism, Corporatism, Irrationalism, and Political Correctness. The authors set out in the next five chapters systematically to elucidate on each of these enemies and to identify explicitly the nature of threat each represents ... Bowen and Schwartz are to be congratulated more generally for launching what may well be among the first volleys in a sorely-needed and long-awaited debate on what is and should be happening within the American university, and its appropriate future role. If the roles, motivations, and operation of the university are to continue to evolve, it is imperative that we explicitly enumerate and fully understand the implications of the changes. Readers inside and outside of universities will find this book erudite, interesting, provocative, and well worth the read." - Randall Jackson, Director, Regional Research Institute, West Virginia University

Table of Contents

1. A Storehouse of Ideas
2. The University’s Dysfunctional Side
3. The Phenomenon of Knowledge
4. The Advancement of Scientific Knowledge
5. Enemy I: Authoritariansim
6. Enemy II: Supernaturalism
7. Enemy III: Corporatism
8. Enemy IV: Irrationalism
9. Enemy V: Political Correctness
10. The University in a Knowledge Economy
11. Rethinking the American University: Seven Requisites for Success
12. Civil Society, Values, and the University