A new school aims to bring rationality back to politics, business and society.

ASU Stands to Reason

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Valley News Issue: June 2017
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Illustration by Angelina Aragon

Amidst the maelstrom of mudslinging, reactionary rhetoric and Orwellian newspeak, Arizona State University is answering the nation’s desperate call for civil discourse. This spring, the university launched the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL). It’s the first of its kind in the country, combining Greek and Enlightenment philosophers’ techniques for reasoned thinking with contemporary approaches to altruistic leadership.

Patrick Kenney, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, announced that the school aims to produce “people who are thoughtful, people who are patient, people who are balanced in their thinking, who like to look at different kinds of perspectives when they’re looking to solve problems.”

Remember those people? They seem to have gone the way of togas and stovepipe hats. In the last 60 years, partisan voting in Congress has increased by about 5 percent annually, according to a 2015 study in the journal PLOS ONE. Voters are often as unquestioningly loyal to their political party as to their sports team. The goal is “winning,” found a Political Research Quarterly study.
“We are fractured in all kinds of ways,” says SCETL director Paul Carrese, who taught for 18 years at the Air Force Academy. “People don’t spend much time thinking broadly and making connections across intellectual disciplines to people who don’t share precisely the same views they have.”

SCETL’s solution is to return to a classical and broad-ranging education. Students will study Plato, Nietzsche, Sartre, Aristotle, Marx, Rousseau, Adam Smith and the Federalists, as well as Islamic, Hindu and Confucian philosophies. They’ll be taught Socratic methods of asking ever-deepening questions to analyze news and counteract social media’s bias-boosting algorithms – toga-era techniques for the Twitter Age.

“The point,” Carrese says, “is not so much to teach students the answers as it is to put in front of them great resources for sharpening and deepening their ways of thinking. [So they can] go beyond just squabbling over current issues and say, ‘I have a sense of why there is a conflict about this question, but also some deeper ways of thinking about it.’”

To expose people to diverse views, the school will bring in speakers for public lectures – a prospect not without risk. These days, to invite a controversial figure to a university is to walk a tightrope between hot coals and a minefield. What is free speech and what is hate speech? Is giving a platform to a provocateur legitimizing lies or exposing shadowy beliefs to the light of truth? At Carrese’s alma mater Middlebury College, protests recently shut down a talk by Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, which discusses ethnic differences in IQ. Carrese’s professor friend was attacked in the protest before she could challenge Murray’s views.

How will Carrese balance this minefield with SCETL’s mission? He says he and his faculty must make judgment calls, but he’s open to inviting controversial speakers. “I do think it would be helpful to offer the [perspective] that different points of view needn’t be seen as threatening to this or that group just because it’s divergent.”

Carrese plans to structure many of the public programs as dialogues. He’s considering inviting the U.S. Senate’s ideological odd couple Republican Ben Sasse and Democrat Elizabeth Warren, plus conservative Princeton professor Robert P. George and liberal Harvard professor Cornel West. “We want to offer that model to students, faculty, staff, the wider community, that people can very strongly disagree about policy issues, but they can be reasonable with each other.”

Modern Politicians vs. Ancient Philosophers
“I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”
— President Donald Trump

“Sean Spicer gave alternative facts.”
— Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president

“The 325 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter” —  New York Times headline

“I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, I do not fancy I do.” — Socrates

“Shall we say that in such a case your opinion is true to you but false to the myriads?”
— Plato, Theaetetus

“Anybody can become angry; that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power; that is not easy.”— Aristotle