The Case for (Actually) Dangerous Ideas

By Antigone Xenopoulos and Sam Wolfe

The Case for (Actually) Dangerous Ideas

When philosophy professor Debra Satz announced that she would be running an interdisciplinary seminar entitled “Dangerous Ideas,” there appeared hope for true ideological diversity at Stanford. In the wake of a presidential election that rebutted the expectations and assumptions of America’s elites, it seemed appropriate that Stanford students be exposed to perspectives fundamentally different from their own.

A cursory glance at the syllabus revealed, however, that many of the ideas appeared to be, well, the opposite of dangerous. Lectures on “equality,” “humanity,” and “redemption” might be many things, but controversial — let alone dangerous — they are not. The very names of some of the others — “Tradition: The Enemy of Progress” was a personal favorite — implied there was only one perspective to be had.

To Professor Satz’s credit, she is making an effort. The level of exposure to truly radical or uncomfortable ideas on this campus is woeful. Take last week’s Stanford Political Union debate on artificial intelligence, where a CS professor and an Economics professor spent sixty minutes in violent agreement on essentially every social and political consequence of machine learning. Slow the progress of AI? Neither John Taylor nor Andrew Ng would hear of it. Support imploding industries whose workers have nowhere to go? Not a chance.

Indeed, The Political Union has come in for a remarkable amount of flak for discussing eminently reasonable topics of late. The Daily wrote a genuinely baffling article that slammed the Union for discussing whether we should repeal Obamacare, suggesting — without even a hint of satire — that we should debate staging a military coup instead.

It’s time for Stanford to cut these problems off at the source and commit to hiring professors who legitimately diverge from the liberal centre and teach classes in that same vein.

Of course, Stanford has conservative and liberal professors. But there can be no doubt that the former are vastly outnumbered by the latter. Even when stalwart conservatives such as Frank Fukuyama do present their case, they do so in a foot-shuffling “some would say” style — before qualifying themselves with “but you might see differently” just a little too quickly.

Worst of all, even Stanford’s “conservatives” have selected a vanishingly small political arena within which to disagree with their liberal counterparts. At a recent SIG event with Barbara Boxer, a libertarian dared to ask Senator Boxer whether taxation was principally legitimate. Boxer’s answer skirted the issue masterfully for two minutes, essentially telling him ‘you do you,’ while the audience smirked knowingly.

Stanford students are incapable of looking beyond the conventional political binary. We only learn within the paradigm that most of us have already adopted.

The political differences between the archetypal Democrat and Republican on campus today are, historically speaking, virtually nil. They have their disagreements on policy, of course, but such disagreements fall within a framework of democratic norms and practices that enjoy consensus on Capitol Hill. These norms are tremendous, powerful ones — they include respect for individual liberty, support for a strong state that upholds rule of law, an aversion to authoritarianism, love for a separation of powers, and pride in America’s values. Stanford professors are right to emphasize these values as integral to the American project and worthy of vigorous defense.

But by presenting these American, democratic ideals as universally accepted, they neglect to challenge their students’ individual and collective presuppositions. Where they err is in failing to teach students the alternatives, or to pursue the alternatives themselves.

For every champion of individual liberty across political history, there is an equally capable, equally shrewd reactionary, who would sooner hand power to a monarch than leave it in the hands of the people. For every capitalist, there is a Marxist; for every Andrew Ng calling for accelerated automation, a Bill Gates who wants to tax robots. For every republican Jefferson, there is an authoritarian Carlyle; for every democratic Locke, an anarchist Bakunin. You just don’t learn about their views here at Stanford because professors don’t agree with them.

When we don’t learn about these perspectives — or even hear of them — everyone loses. Stanford students miss out on a crucial perspective. Society finds itself less capable of dealing with or explaining new phenomena that the conventional academic wisdom can’t answer. And the cycle self-perpetuates when Stanford graduates are ideologically homogenous and stifle the future of the marketplace of ideas.

Every SLE student can testify to the intrigue of discussing Marxism with Mark Mancall for the first time, or Machiavellian political philosophy. But that teaching affects eighty students, once. Stanford — and the world — needs students to have their foundational worldview challenged again and again over their four years on the Farm.

If students of political philosophy are taught that Western civilization has achieved nirvana, that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,” who will be the next Marx, Rousseau, or Locke? If universities do not encourage us to question current political norms, how may we improve governance?

A further danger of being taught a single theorem as fact lies in our inability to understand those who view the world, and those who rule the world, differently than us. Putin and Xi certainly reject the norms that what Stanford’s political science department preaches. And yet the former has reinvigorated his nation’s international relevance, and the latter has positioned his country as a leader of the world order.

In the White House itself, we have learned over the last few months that Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s most senior adviser, is partial to reactionaries like Julius Evola and Charles Maurras. Fringe ideas are read in the White House, so why not on the Farm?

Similarly, when we unquestioningly accept ideals like progress and openness, we are left shocked by political “anomalies” like Brexit and Trump’s victory. Were the intelligentsia more exposed to populist or far-right thinkers, perhaps these results would not have been so surprising. Educated elites cannot empathize with others, in America and across the globe, if their learning only ingrains their preconceived biases. Likewise, professors cannot prepare their students to understand insurrection if they only teach the status quo.

This isn’t to say that Stanford should try to churn out young revolutionaries. Studying radical political ideologies, whether Marxism, Fascism, or monarchism, will nuance our understanding and appreciation of of democracy. But that nuance can only begin from a point of ideological extremity: from understanding how people came to disagree, often viscerally, about our world’s foundational values.

Stanford should move to aggressively remedy its liberal hegemony. A welcome start would be a systematic effort to hire professors with unorthodox or extreme views. Some of Stanford’s finest professors, such as Mancall, fit this mold, but the number remains far too small.

Second, Stanford should provide professors teaching contentious topics with the funds to invite controversial guest speakers, whether to debate the professor or complement the lesson. Such classes could double as guest speaker events, and allow open attendance. As far as we are concerned, the more students forced to grapple with unfamiliar ideas, the better.

Radical thinkers need not be feared for their potential to inspire revolution. Rather, they should be treasured for this power. After all, in the words of Lincoln, the “great experiment” that is America was born by thinkers who did just that.

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