The uneasy case for intellectual diversity.

Author:Paulsen, Michael Stokes
Position:Intellectual Diversity and the Legal Academy

Wouldn't it be ironic if, at an academic conference on "intellectual diversity," everybody thought and said pretty much the same things?

I suspect that the near-universal consensus view on the value of intellectual diversity in law school faculties runs along the lines of the following: In an academic institution, and especially in a law school, intellectual diversity--diversity of views and values, diversity of opinions expressed and discussed, diversity of approaches--is a value of paramount importance. Without true intellectual diversity, there can be a stifling uniformity of thought that is antithetical to the very idea of a university. Without intellectual diversity, ideas cannot be tested in the crucible of committed opposition; theories suffer from the brittleness of not being tested; positions become flaccid and flabby because they are unexercised by the intellectual workout of contending with thoughtful, rigorous dissent. Especially for a field like law, which in the Anglo-American tradition is virtually defined by the adversary method--the proposition that truth emerges best from the clash of vigorous, committed opposing viewpoints--diversity of intellectual perspective is an essential feature of education and training. Lack of intellectual diversity harms students. They suffer in their educations by not being exposed to, and challenged by, competing views. They cease to think. They become lobotomized automatons, consuming a steady diet of uniform thought--thought that, because of its own flabbiness, has ceased to be thought at all. Minority views within the student body--the perspective of the not-fully-indoctrinated remnant, the resistance--are suppressed almost casually. Those holding non-conforming views become discouraged, repressed. Eventually, they give up.

And a final piece of the standard consensus: There is rampant hypocrisy about "intellectual diversity" among the very academics who, usually, embrace it so enthusiastically. They do not practice what they preach. Professors champion the abstract value of intellectual diversity at the same time that they seek to clone themselves in faculty hiring processes, and resist competing ideas in the classroom or the faculty lounge. Whatever they say, professors mostly want colleagues who think along the same lines as they do and who support their premises and worldviews. The result, where intellectual diversity does not prevail is that academia becomes intellectually skewed, decisively, in favor of one particular cluster of ideological commitments. Today, that orthodoxy is modern left-liberalism.

So goes the prevailing consensus. And there is, of course, much truth to it--much truth. There is often good reason why a prevailing consensus is a prevailing consensus, and the consensus sketched above exists for good reason. Intellectual diversity is a good and useful thing. Its absence is a notable characteristic of weak scholarly communities, making for weaker scholarship and for relatively impoverished teaching and learning. Everyone in the prevailing Academic Orthodoxy favors intellectual diversity, in theory, but fights it in practice.

But might I be allowed to offer a mildly dissenting view, at least for the sake of argument (and "intellectual diversity")? Might I suggest that intellectual diversity in legal academia is an overrated commodity? That it is overvalued in theory as well as undervalued in practice? Might I suggest that the value of intellectual diversity is distinctly secondary and instrumental? That intellectual rigor and quality, and the search for intellectual "Truth," (with a capital T) are the true prime values, and that these values are not necessarily furthered by the quest for "diverse views," simpliciter, but flow more reliably from other academic values, virtues, and attributes? And that the primary value of the argument for intellectual diversity, today, is that it serves as a good and effective rhetorical trope with which to bludgeon the currently entrenched Illiberal Academic Orthodox Establishment in the terms of a value they pretend to embrace?

In this Essay, I offer four somewhat interrelated propositions that, taken together, make a limited case against the prevailing orthodoxy about intellectual diversity. I offer them as suggestions, in the spirit of provocation. They are intuitions submitted for consideration--diverse views, if you will, about intellectual diversity. They suggest that the case for intellectual diversity is not as easy as it might at first seem.


My first and most fundamental proposition is that intellectual diversity is a subordinate, instrumental value. It is not of value for its own sake. The object of intellectual inquiry is Truth, not diversity. Intellectual diversity is an instrumental value in service of the larger value of the pursuit of Truth, which is the primary value and ultimate goal. Sometimes intellectual diversity furthers the search for Truth, and sometimes it does not. Where intellectual diversity furthers the quest for intellectual Truth, it should be valued; where it impairs the pursuit of intellectual Truth, it should not be valued.

In principle, one should never value intellectual diversity over intellectual Truth. One should never deliberately water down known Truth with known Error, in order to advance the believed overriding value of "diversity of views." Only a fool would truly think it vital to intellectual integrity to give Round Earth and Flat Earth views equal time, equal weight, or equal respect. One should only desire the competition of diverse views in order better to pursue Truth (or to challenge Error).

I do not wish to denigrate the importance of this instrumental function, however. For while it is true in principle that intellectual Truth should always be valued more highly than intellectual diversity viewed as a good in its own right, in practice that principle must be accommodated to a harsh reality. That reality is that there are few views that we can confidently say are Flat Earth views--so clearly wrong, or so decisively repudiated by incontrovertible evidence or reasoning as not to be worth discussing. This is especially true in the fields of law, literature, humanities, morality, religion, history, social sciences, and philosophy. But it is also true in the fields of natural science and even mathematics, though perhaps to a lesser degree. (1) One can believe in Truth and yet harbor grave doubts that humans will consistently, or ever, get it quite right, and thus favor intellectual diversity strongly as a means of leaving the pathways to Truth open.

At the very least, it is surely the case that what the other guys say is indisputably "True" is often quite suspect indeed. I was a faculty member at the University of Minnesota Law School for sixteen years, and more than once was on the losing side (albeit, of course, the correct side!) of a 32-1 faculty vote on fundamental moral and policy propositions. And the other guys surely doubt the Truth of your view. (Sometimes they do so by a 32-1 vote.) This is not to say that there is no Truth, that Truth is subjective, or that Truth is a matter of opinion. It is simply to say that Truth is not a product of majority vote or even supermajority vote. Truth does not always prevail. If overwhelming, essentially unanimous consensus within a given academic community is thought the standard by which intellectual Truth is measured, experience suggests it may in fact be better to subordinate the theoretical ideal of academic Truth to the instrumental value of intellectual diversity.

Professor Robert George put the case powerfully and persuasively at the conference in which this Essay was first presented: Groupthink is a pervasive academic disease. (2) The nature of the disease is such that if an academician is deeply afflicted with it, he or she usually does not know it. Moreover, human nature is such that people have a great deal of trouble evaluating evidence, arguments, and reasoning objectively, on questions or issues about which they care deeply; there is a limit to the ability of even the most open-minded of academics to be self-critical. A pre-commitment to intellectual diversity as a primary academic value is thus a good, perhaps even essential, vaccine, or antidote, to academic Groupthink.

Even where one thinks one has the Truth, there is an enormous instrumental value to not closing off the intellectual debate over "settled" issues. Accordingly, the more one believes in Truth, the more one will tend to recognize the value of intellectual diversity as an instrumental tool integral to the Truth-seeking process.

But Truth is the goal. Intellectual diversity is a means to a larger, more fundamental end. (3)


That leads to my second proposition for consideration: Greater intellectual diversity within most law school faculties (and this holds true for other faculty departments, too, especially in the humanities and social sciences) is not important so much in its own right--that is, as a matter of principle--as it is important as a means of providing a beachhead against the dominance of Untruth, Error, Extremism, and Nonsense in General that so characterizes the faculties of many law schools and other university departments today. Or, to switch metaphors slightly: The true value of what we call "intellectual diversity" is that it furnishes a bayonet with which to stab Error and Falsity. To the extent those twin evils infect legal academia, intellectual diversity thrusts the sharp blade of Truth into the body of Error. But the ultimate object is, or should be, to kill Error, not to live peacefully alongside it. The point of the argument from intellectual diversity is not to bring peace, but a sword.

The thrust of the bayonet comes, usefully enough, at the precise point of a chink in the intellectual armor of entrenched liberal academia today--right at the spot where academic liberalism is most vulnerable...

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