The Marketplace of Ideas?

One of the best discussions of the role of the classroom that I have seen in quite some time appeared yesterday on the Free Exchange on Campus blog. Kurt Smith, a professor of Philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania makes the point that the “marketplace of ideas” concept of the classroom (as used by the likes of David Horowitz) is based on misconception, at best:

Based squarely on their education and training, professors are given authority to determine which ideas get introduced and discussed in a classroom. Like the physician, the professor’s choices of alternatives are importantly connected to what the community of scholars (in his or her discipline) hold. In other words, the academic disciplines are determining what students should learn. Professors are simply teaching what is acceptable within their disciplines. And, by the time we get to the undergraduate classroom, it is not a free market of ideas in the sense that just anything goes.

Smith also takes Stanley Fish to ask for advocating “neutrality” in the classroom, showing its impossibility. This is a point of particular interest to me, for it stems from the same assumption behind the journalist’s stance of “objectivity.” Both “neutrality” and “objectivity” may be goals, but they are unattainable, and can only be approached through an acceptance of certain biases in the first place. Smith wonders if Fish advocates “neutrality” before his students–breaking his own rule. Like “objectivity,” “neutrality” requires the same acceptance of a limited universe of discourse that Smith lays out, and is not, therefore, “objective” or “neutral” at all. To argue otherwise, one has either to delude oneself or to be trying to delude others.

Free Exchange on Campus is expanding its blog to promote a more vigorous debate on topics such as this one. I hope the discussions thrive, for we need to begin to really re-examine our assumptions about academia and higher education.

Smith’s blog entry is a good step towards that.