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  • Writer's pictureCorey Lee Wilson

Let’s Embrace Constructive Disagreement

Constructive Disagreement occurs when people who don’t see eye-to-eye are committed to exploring an issue together, alive to their own fallibility and the limits of their knowledge—and open to learning something from others who see things differently than they do.

When people lack the skill or the will to disagree constructively, disputes about theories, methods, data, analysis, or solutions can take on the character of zero-sum power struggles rather than opportunities for mutual growth and discovery. People become more polarized and closed-minded. They grow less likely to share and cooperate, and more likely to withhold key information, or engage in bad-faith for competitive advantage.

Mistakes and failures are more likely to be weaponized against scholars rather than being understood as an unavoidable part of the iterative process of exploration, trial, error, discovery, and revision that lies at the core of the scientific method. People grow less likely to take risks or tolerate uncertainty. Under these circumstances, increased diversity can become a liability—a source of additional paranoia and strife—rather than an asset.

Many students, faculty and staff have insufficient training in how to constructively engage across difference—especially as it relates to fundamental ideological commitments. To help resolve this campus wide problem, the Heterodox Academy that partners with professors, administrators, and others to create an academy eager to welcome people who approach problems and questions from different points of view, has a set of tools and ten steps professors can take to promote open inquiry and constructive disagreement in their classrooms.

However, constructive disagreement cannot simply be taught from the armchair: it is a skill people refine through real-world engagement. In many contexts this is difficult due to the aforementioned demographic and ideological distortions within institutions of higher education.

Engaging With Underrepresented Perspectives Meaningfully and Charitably in the Curriculum

Many students lack opportunities to engage with underrepresented perspectives meaningfully and charitably in the curriculum. Many professors who are concerned about this problem don’t know where or how to begin introducing missing perspectives, as they often do not have a solid foundation in them either.

In many academic contexts, from class discussions to academic research, there are apparent incentives towards competition which can be counterproductive to learning and growth. It often seems easier to build a reputation by attacking others—to elevate oneself at the expense of others—than to seek opportunities for mutual growth and collaborative discovery among people who seem to be on opposite sides of an issue.

The background political culture in the contemporary United States is highly polarized and increasingly toxic. In such an environment, differences of opinion are more likely to be attributed to moral or intellectual defects in one’s interlocutors. People are easily branded as sellouts or traitors for collaborating with “the enemy”—or providing ammunition for the “enemy” by defying the consensus of their tribe known as identify politics.

We All Suffer From Confirmation Bias

Per Dr. Jonathan Haidt, “We all suffer from confirmation bias—the tendency to use all of our powers of reasoning to seek out proof of why we are right. The only known cure for confirmation bias is engaging with other people who see things differently. Only they can find reasons why you might be wrong. Only they can help you improve your thinking. Therefore, an orthodox university cannot make you smarter, it can only confirm the prejudices you brought with you.”

A heterodox university, in contrast, elevates everyone’s ability to reason and sets students up with more realistic expectations about the world they will enter after commencement. In an interview with ACTA’s The Forum he continues:

The Forum: What are the effects on individuals who live, work, and study in an environment that tolerates only one viewpoint—or orthodoxy?

Haidt: In such an environment, individuals with contrasting views are silenced either by peers or—more often—through self-censorship, walking on eggshells. What we want to break is the echo chamber in which people who have the same perspective endlessly reinforce each other, deepening orthodoxy and lessening the potential for cross-partisan conversations and empathy.

The future of liberal democracy depends in no small measure on empathy—the ability to humanize and understand others. Students need to see those with whom they disagree politically as people—or else they risk alienating and demonizing the other side, which only leads to further conflict and highly-limited understanding.

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