By Richard Vedder
Our good friend Jane Shaw just pointed out to me a great column in the Pope Center's Clarion Call by another good friend (and American Enterprise Institute colleague) Steve Hayward, the author of a superb biography of Ronald Reagan's life before the presidency.
Steve notes that North Carolina's Elon University is requiring students, as part of its summer reading program, to read the book version of Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth. Gore's book is full of passion and emotion, but is weak on fact and objectivity. There are dispassionate, more objectively scientific works that provide a balanced view of the global warming debate, as well as right-leaning accounts (Chris Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute has written a great one), but Elon assigns only Gore's work, in effect saying it wants to promote not a search for truth but environmental activism, Gore-style.
I am not a scientist, and I am not sure about global warming, but I do know there are multiple points of view on the issue, and some very prominent scientists dissent from what the press calls the scientific consensus with respect to the evidence and perceived policy solutions. Universities who want to promote truth should select middle-of-the-road objective accounts (Steve names one or two). Or, if the goal is to invite debate on the issues, why not assign both Gore's book and Chris Horner's? Or some of Steve's own work on the issue?
Universities and colleges very often use required readings programs to push a political agenda, which is the antithesis of what universities should do. They should stay neutral in the policy debate, offering evidence of all kinds and varieties, and let the facts dictate policy by outsiders. Or, if they are trying to promote critical thinking and the realization that there are at least two sides to almost any issue, they should provide equal access to alternative viewpoints. That very often does not happen. Ideology tied to junk science increasingly trumps factual presentations of evidence. As I have written before, the Age of the Enlightenment may be winding down, as the forces of secular faith overcome the forces of reason and science. If schools want to have a deliberate ideological bias (and there are such schools on the right, too, such as Hillsdale College), they should label themselves as such: "We are Elon University and we promote left-of-center policies as part of the curricular experience."
As Steve Hayward points out, of course, this is nothing new. Students were coerced to read Paul Ehrlich's screed The Population Bomb a generation ago, another alarmist book whose thesis today seems rather laughable, particularly in parts of the world where the chief demographic concern is depopulation. For everyone who read works by the late great Julian Simon in college on this issue, there were 50 students forced to read Ehrlich (I am guessing at that figure --it may be more or less). And these are not isolated examples: other faddish books have gained attention for a while (old-timers: remember The Greening of America?)
What do students and parents want from a college? For many, the prime interest is vocational --job preparation. But most of us believe colleges do prepare young Americans to become adults, to be good citizens, and that, in turn, requires some knowledge of our heritage, our culture, and, yes, issues perceived to be important in our times (of which global warming is one). And in asking students to read, we should not shelter them from polemical tracts, from strong points of view, etc., but we should aim for balance with respect to policy options and for truth with respect to evidence. I think that American colleges are not doing that very well based on the rudimentary evidence I have seen. Of course, we don't really know, since it is a deep dark secret what students actually learn in their postsecondary education, and colleges, by and large, want to keep it that way.