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A true dialogue of left and right

I want to give a couple of examples of the value of viewpoint, or intellectual, diversity on university campuses. One is the James Madison Program at Princeton, which I have the honor to direct. The program was founded 15 years ago. Its impact on the inte

I want to give a couple of examples of the value of viewpoint, or intellectual, diversity on university campuses. One is the James Madison Program at Princeton, which I have the honor to direct. The program was founded 15 years ago. Its impact on the intellectual culture of Princeton, by helping to bring viewpoint diversity into our community, has been remarkable. It gives me enormous satisfaction that this opinion of mine is shared by many of my liberal colleagues who share none of my other opinions. They have praised the Madison Program for turning what might have been campus monologues into true dialogues - benefiting everybody in the process. The presence on campus of an initiative like the Madison Program ensures that students hear a wide range of opinions from thoughtful and accomplished scholars.

Diversity of opinion confers a great benefit on an intellectual community. It ensures that people cannot simply suppose that everybody in the room shares the same assumptions or holds the same views. People know that they have to defend their premises - because they will be challenged. That makes for a deeper, more serious kind of intellectual engagement - a kind that profoundly enriches the intellectual life for the entire community.

The second example is the experience I've had teaching with my friend and colleague Professor Cornel West. He is a man of the left. I am on the conservative side of the political spectrum. But we regularly teach together at Princeton. In fact, we have just completed a seminar together that included readings from Sophocles, Plato, St. Augustine, Marx, Mill, Newman, Kierkegaard, Hayek, Solzhenitsyn, John Dewey, C.S. Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Gabriel Marcel. What happens in our seminars is magical and the impact on our students is amazing.

What you have here is a genuine collaboration. Professor West and I cooperate across the lines of ideological and political difference in the common project of truth-seeking, knowledge-seeking, wisdom-seeking, engaging with each other and our students in a serious, respectful, civil manner, striving to understand each other and learn from each other, treating each other, not as enemies, but as partners in the dialectical process of seeking truth, knowledge, and wisdom.

Whether the reading for the next meeting of our seminar is Machiavelli's Prince, Tocqueville's Democracy in America, DuBois' Souls of Black Folk, Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, or Strauss' Natural Right and History, we can't wait each week to be back in the classroom together. Our approach is the very opposite of antiquarian: We look for the timeless meaning and contemporary significance of the texts we assign. We consider existential, moral, religious, and political questions that are important to us and our students in the context of the writings we examine.

And here is the thing that really matters: The students learn, and they learn how to learn. They learn to approach intellectual and political matters critically - engaging the most compelling points to be adduced in favor of competing ideas and claims. They learn the value and importance of mutual respect and civility. They learn from two guys with some pretty strong opinions, neither of whom is shy about stating them publicly, that the spirit of truth-seeking, like the spirit of liberty, is a spirit open to the possibility that one is in serious error.

Let me be more specific because what Professor West and I do really is, I believe, part of the cure for campus illiberalism.

Now, I've always prided myself as a teacher on being able to represent, accurately and sympathetically, moral and political views I myself do not share. So if I'm teaching about abortion, or marriage, or religious freedom, or campaign finance and the First Amendment in my constitutional interpretation classes or my civil liberties classes, I like to think that if someone dropped in who happened not to know which side I was on, he or she wouldn't be able to figure it out from my presentation of the competing positions and the arguments for and against them.

What I have learned in teaching with my friend Cornel, though, is this: As good as I think I am at this, I am not good enough. Time after time in the course of our seminars I have found him saying something, or making a compelling point in response to a point that I or one of the more conservative students has made, that simply would not have occurred to me - a point that needs to be seriously considered and engaged. Had he not been there, the point would not have been made, and the benefit to be conferred on all of us in grappling with it would not have been gained. And Cornel tells me that he has had precisely the same experience, time and time again.

Now that, it seems to me, is a very good argument for promoting intellectual diversity. And the matters in dispute do not necessarily have to be political matters. The disagreements might be about the proper interpretation of Shakespeare or the Bible, or any of a range of other subjects. But the truly important thing is this:

A healthy intellectual milieu is one in which students and scholars regularly encounter competing views and arguments; where intelligent dissent from dominant views is common and the value of dissent is understood and appreciated; where beliefs that can be supported by arguments and advanced in a spirit of goodwill are common enough that they do not strike people as reflections of ignorance, bigotry, or bad will, and people who do not share them do not experience them - because they seem so alien - as personal assaults or outrages against the community's values.

Diversity of opinion among faculty on campus, even if not in the same classroom, is the antidote to the shocking illiberalism we see on campuses today. It voids the tendency of people - students and faculty alike - who hold positions that happen to be dominant to suppose that the college or university is theirs, and is for people like them, not for people who disagree with them. It sends a message that all who seek knowledge of truth and wish to pursue it in a spirit of civility and mutual respect are welcome as insiders sharing the truly constitutive values and goals of the community, not outsiders who are, at best, merely to be tolerated as if they were present in the community only on sufferance.

Am I advocating "affirmative action" for conservative faculty? Not at all. I'm advocating attitudes and practices that will cure campus illiberalism without the need to "recruit conservatives" or give conservative scholars preferences in hiring and promotion. If conscious and unconscious prejudice against people who dissent from prevailing orthodoxies were defeated, if intellectual diversity were truly valued for its vital contribution to the cause of learning, the hiring problems would take care of themselves. We would not have departments of sociology or politics or history with 43 liberals and one conservative (or, more likely, one libertarian). Nor would we have the embarrassments, and the tragedy, of campus illiberalism.

This article was excerpted from his speech "Is There a Cure for Campus Illiberalism?" given May 21 to a conference in Philadelphia sponsored by the Bradley Foundation ( and the Jack Miller Center (