Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University

Truth and Civility

Q&A with Robert George

Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, recently spoke to the UNC System Board of Governors on the topic of civil discourse. Following that discussion, we sat down for a Q&A with the professor.


Q: UNC System: At their best universities force students to examine and reexamine their views and beliefs. How well do you think higher education is doing this right now, and, in what ways do you think institutions can improve?

A: Robert George: Higher ed is a very diverse thing. There are some institutions that I think are doing a great job at encouraging their students to think deeply and think critically and think for themselves. At the opposite end, there are some places that seem to be failing in that. And then there are lots of places in the middle. It’s what you would expect given how broad and diverse American higher education is, but there are institutions that provide and can provide leadership and set an example of what it means to encourage deep and critical and independent thinking. We’re trying to do that at Princeton with the very strong support of our President Christopher Eisgruber. We’re trying across the university to not only show our own students what it means but to show anyone who’s interested what it means to encourage critical thinking. Where it’s not happening so well, the solution it seems is for people to take the measure of the problem and reform. If students are falling into orthodoxies or group-think, it’s relatively easy to take steps to shake them up, expose them to writings or to speakers, faculty members, or visitors who will challenge what they believe give them opportunities to engage with thinkers who see things a bit differently. It’s not so much a question of figuring out how to do it because it’s comparatively easy. It’s more a question of mustering the will and determination to do it.


Q: UNC System: We’re in a period of polarization and entrenched beliefs. What have you seen that works when you’re trying to bring students together to talk amongst themselves and not simply re-entrench their own beliefs but to find some mutual understanding within this idea of creating civil discourse. What advice do you have for faculty and students who are looking to recreate what you have done at Princeton?

A: Robert George: Model the behavior that you want more of. Nothing in my own experience has been more valuable to the cause of learning than the work that I have been privileged to do with my friend and colleague Cornel West, where the two of us who have very different views about a wide range of matters get together in a seminar or in a classroom or even as visiting lectures at universities around the country and just engage with each other. We just have a conversation about important things in which we try to deepen our own and our audiences understanding of the substantive issues we’re discussing, and, at the same time, show our audience not only that its possible for two people who sharply disagree to treat each other with respect and even be friends but to demonstrate the concrete value in which the cause of truth seeking is served by that kind of intellectual engagement. This is not simply about being nice and being civil to each other although that’s important. Civility is worthwhile for its own sake, but it also has very important instrumental value. Civility enables us to have conversations that deepen everybody’s understanding and knowledge of the substantive questions under consideration. You need civility not just for the general happiness of the community but for the cause of knowledge seeking truth, seeking deeper understanding.


Q: UNC System: Have you seen examples among your students of the same approach that you and Dr. West have taken? Do you see that kind of civility in discourse replicating itself?

A: Robert George: All the time. The role modeling pays off. At Princeton, conservative and liberal student organizations will join together to co-sponsor a visiting speaker or panels or debates that have as a goal deepening everyone’s understanding of the issues. One of the things that Cornel and I encourage and try to model is talking for the sake of truth. I distinguish that from talking for the sake of victory. I don’t have much love for gladiatorial spectacles – putting two people who have different points of view in front of an audience where the two debaters are using every trick in the book, every rhetorical device to simply persuade and win the audience over to their side. So often that kind of thing degenerates into mere sophistry. It’s different when you’re talking for truth. When you’re talking for truth, you’re truly listening to each other. The interlocutors are trying to learn from each other. The goal is not to defeat an enemy. The goal is a common goal even though you disagree, even though you are going about achieving the goal by a dialectical method arguing back and forth, still the common goal is truth. Understanding knowledge, deepening our grasp of whatever issue is under discussion, that common good, truth, knowledge, understanding is more important in a way than whatever it is that is dividing us. If we disagree about whether we should have a national, government-run, single-payer system of healthcare, if two people disagree about that and are truly reasonable people of goodwill, what they’re really both interested in is the truth of the matter. They may disagree right now about what the truth is, and they may never reach agreement, but by discussing the issue not with a view of winning the victory but with a view of getting at the truth, they are bound to deepen each other’s understanding of the question. One might change the others mind by inducing evidence, arguments, reasons. One might persuade the other, or short of that, one or both of them might move a bit from whatever position they began or maybe neither may move from their position. One might want a purely market-based system, and the other might want a government-run healthcare system. But in any case, no matter what happens, they will have a deeper understanding of the issues at the end of the discussion than they had at the beginning of the discussion. And that is really what education is all about.


Q: UNC System: You’ve talked a lot about accepting unpopularity to achieve integrity. What advice do you have, especially for leaders at public system institutions, for doing that same thing in the unique environment in which higher ed is living?

A: Robert George: Hold up examples to your students. Honor people on your faculty or elsewhere who demonstrate integrity whether they have demonstrated it in a cause that is popular on your campus or a cause that in unpopular on your campus. Make clear to your students that intellectual honesty, intellectual humility, openness of mind, a refusal to be intimated, a willingness to make oneself unpopular, and a willingness to suffer adverse consequences for one’s convictions is something that should be honored, looked up to, and admired. To honor and look up to and admire a person like that isn’t necessarily to agree with that person on whatever the issue is, and I am not arguing that you should look up to and admire the courageous Nazi, but also don’t make the mistake of assuming that anybody who disagrees with you or holds an unpopular opinion on your campus is a Nazi. The great debates that we have today are debates between and among reasonable people of good will. In some cases, there are dominate positions, orthodoxies on college campuses, and sometimes it takes real courage and integrity for a faculty member or visiting speaker or student to stand up for unpopular positions. But that’s exactly what we should encourage, and we encourage it by noting it, by honoring people who exemplify it, by making clear that we believe that its admirable to be willing to stand up for a cause that one believes in. Now, it’s especially important in universities that we conduct business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse that is providing reasons, making arguments, inducing evidence, you shouldn’t honor people who don’t do that. When people do that, they deserve to be held up as exemplary because they do set good examples for our students and others connected to the university. That’s true whether or not they are flying in the face of the dominant opinion on the campus.


Watch Professor George’s talk with the UNC Board of Governors.


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

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