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Mark Osler: The case for universities

Mark Osler: The case for universities

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Like many others, I have conversations that fall into a predictable pattern. Someone will make a statement that contradicts known facts with remarkable assurance. When challenged on their source, they will respond, “It was on the internet!” And indeed it was, barfed into cyberspace by someone with little more than an agenda and access to a computer or phone.

This weekend, Waco is full of people who had the opposite experience, as Baylor grads return for homecoming. Instead of getting information from some guy on Facebook, they learned about journalism from Bob Darden or business from Blaine McCormick or theater history from DeAnna Toten-Beard — true experts who have spent a lifetime becoming knowledgeable about the things they teach. As we face a saddening wave of misinformation — from all sides of the political spectrum — the role of institutions like Baylor University has never been more important.

My point here is not that academics are always right. We professors often disagree with one another, after all. But the point of scholarship within the academy is not that every professor will be “correct” about each issue — it’s that the academy will foster a dialogue between learned people that can lead to broad truths. That has been the route to nearly every significant scientific discovery of our time and a better understanding of non-scientific fields like history and economics. For example, history was studied for a long time with a narrow focus on power and war. Over the past 50 years groundbreaking scholars have introduced new perspectives and truths that allow a more complete understanding of the past, such as an unearthing of the role of women and religion within that broader sweep of history. Some resisted this change, but in the end both war and what happened outside the realms of war and government became part of a whole that better describes our world.

Behind these discussions are two things that absolutely must be present in thought-leaders in a civilized society (and too often are lacking in Facebook discussions of important issues). The first is a vetting process for expertise. The second is a willingness to listen to others and consider their process, data and conclusions.

That vetting process is not an easy one; professor jobs are hard to get and sometimes more difficult to keep. To get a Ph.D., one has to be completely immersed in their field and knowledgeable enough to defend a thesis to a panel of sharp-elbowed inquisitors. Years of deep reading are required, and endless reviews of early work is the norm. Young professors are watched over closely, their scholarly work and teaching monitored and assessed. Do some goofballs and deadweight get through? Sure — but they often become irrelevant quickly as others manage the center of debate.

The second element of the academy — a free exchange of ideas between people who disagree — is the iron-on-iron process that leads to great truths and accomplishments. It can be thrilling to watch an exchange between knowledgeable people with different perspectives, or to be a part of one. It affects the participants, as well. I have a good friend, Richard Sullivan, who is conservative (he was appointed to the Federal District Court by George W. Bush, and then the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals by Donald Trump). Judge Sullivan and I have common experiences and have known each other since age 18; we went to college and law school together. Several years ago, we went on a speaking tour, debating narcotics policy at Harvard, Yale, Penn, NYU and here at St. Thomas. We sharply disagreed about things like mandatory minimums, but as the tour went on, we both realized we were affected by the other. My thoughts bent towards truth because he pushed them that way.

Academic concepts like critical race theory are often misunderstood as conclusions (white people are bad!) rather than ways of thinking (the racial history of the United States needs to be a central part of our discussions of history and politics). The truth is that nearly every academic in the United States, from the most conservative to the most liberal, has at some point considered race in a way our predecessors 100 years ago would not have —and that is good. A parallel process has occurred with religion, as scholars (some of them from Baylor) have laid out the influences of faith on our history in ways previously unseen.

Waco is fortunate to have this hot stove of truth right in the middle of town. Baylor has an especially important role to fill in the modern American academy, too, as the largest Protestant university in the country. There are perspectives coming from this faith that can and must be made a part of the broader debates in our nation, and that chair at the table is too often left empty. Filling that place is good for us all.

Universities may be messy, contentious and baffling institutions, but those alumni coming home to Baylor this weekend know this: At some point, if only for a moment, Baylor allowed them to glimpse a wisdom that can only be found at a true university.

Mark Osler is the Marion and Robert Short Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He taught at Baylor Law School from 2000 to 2010.

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