One thing I have noticed on those rare occasions when I truly listen to someone whose viewpoint is diametrically opposed to my own is that I discover there are indeed legitimate points being made and legitimate concerns that need to be heard. That doesn’t mean that I experience a paradigm shift. I will still believe that opposing viewpoint is incorrect, but at the same time I discover that my understanding of that opposing view was actually wrong.
There’s a great deal of satisfaction in being right, and I confess that at times I am more concerned with being right than with listening to someone whom I think is wrong. But there may be much more to the desire to be right than mere ego. Our brains are wired to find the simplest and easiest course. We learn actions that can then be performed by rote, without even thinking about them. That is why we find ourselves, upon walking into the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door and staring at food for five minutes before we recall we really entered the kitchen to find a flashlight. Our brains have developed a pattern that says: “enter kitchen, open fridge”. Having the right answer is a great thing, for our brain can discard all else and hold onto that right answer. It is easier. Simpler. Life now makes sense and we can proceed with cataloguing the more important details in life (the current Kardashian scandal or the names of all the Pokemon and their evolutions).
Being challenged in our right answers is uncomfortable. It can be especially distressing when someone presents us with a set of facts that, at least on the surface, contradict our right answers. We have two choices when confronted with such a challenge: we can either try to hone our own arguments, or we can retreat and try to insulate ourselves from further confrontation. We’ve seen quite a bit of the latter. We develop little adages about how it is impolite to discuss religion and politics — the two most important areas of life, and the two areas most likely to spark an argument. We surround ourselves with like-minded people, listen to the news that most appeals to our viewpoints, and never venture outside the echo-box. Certainly all these tactics are easier than constantly assimilating new arguments, researching new theories and developments, stringing together logical narratives, and perhaps even adjusting our own viewpoints when our conclusions lead us to recognize errors in our previous judgments.
I’ve read a little bit recently on St. Thomas Aquinas, and in reading I gained a peek into life in the universities of the thirteenth century. Students did not come to a university to attend lectures. They essentially apprenticed themselves to a master, who then did not teach so much as dialogue. They demanded that their students ask questions and find answers themselves. I read an account of how universities would host open debates, and the masters would throw their students into the ring to answer the challenges and objections people would raise.
I mention this because (aside from St. Thomas’ tendency to gather all the best objections he could find, and then answering them in a systematic fashion) it certainly seems to me that universities have devolved over time from institutes in which one enters to expand upon human knowledge to institutes that are a form of job preparation. Classes aren’t about dialogue and exploration of ideas, but are a regurgitation of facts. The professors have the right answer, and the students don’t challenge those answers, but rather absorb them. At least at the undergraduate level, there is little difference between college courses and high school courses. Students are provided with the right answers, and are tested on how well they can repeat back those right answers, so that they can pass their classes, get their degree, and then get that dream job they were promised.
In the light of human tendency to form an idea and stick with it, and the universities becoming higher-level job training, free speech becomes an unwelcome interruption. If the universities are about delivering the right answers so that students can pass their classes and move to on to get high-paying jobs, where is there room for dissenting views? They’re wrong, they take effort to address, and they distract from the tranquility of all the nicely-packaged right answers.