This is one of a five-part series on Key Institutions as highlighted by the Framework for a Free and Open Society, envisioned by Charles Koch.
Education is one of the Key Institutions that strengthen society, allowing us to maximize peace, human dignity and well-being for everyone.
Education has played a role in everyone’s life – from elementary school to technical training or college. If you’re like me, you’ve probably spent time on your own learning more about the things that interest you.
A well-educated citizenry is essential to a free and functioning society. A good education helps the next generation find and pursue their callings that will give them lifelong fulfillment. It gives them the tools to create value for themselves and their communities. And it produces the knowledge that drives progress.
But to properly prepare the next generation to carry forward the torch of liberty, education must have two essential components: diversity of ideas and a culture of toleration and challenge.
When we talk about toleration, we’re not talking about tolerance in the sense the left uses. According to the Charles Koch Institute, toleration means “not demonizing, using, or advocating force against those with ideas, beliefs, and practices that one considers wrong, but which do not violate the person, property, or liberty of others.”
Today, it seems like toleration is in short supply. You only have to take a look at the chaos on college campuses to see that diversity of ideas, discussions and debates aren’t welcome in much of academia.
In the place of free discussion and learning, schools are now focused on pushing one viewpoint and silencing all others. But this kind of “education” is a serious threat to the freedoms and values we all hold dear.
The Dangers of Stifling
When universities discourage and even punish open discourse, it prevents people from being exposed to diverse viewpoints, creating an echo chamber that only reinforces one viewpoint. It doesn’t foster a culture of challenge that allows people to prove or disprove a wide range of viewpoints.
The long-term implications of preventing robust discourse and even disagreement means new ideas aren’t developed and spread through society, seriously inhibiting human progress.
Imagine what the world would be like today if the elites of the 16th century had succeeded in silencing Galileo after he championed the theory that the earth revolved around the sun. Countless innovations and advancements we take for granted today could never have happened if Galileo hadn’t challenged the status quo.
Challenged Preconceptions Make Culture Stronger
Human knowledge and understanding aren’t static. What we thought we knew 100 years ago isn’t what we know today. Good and bad ideas are challenged all the time, and we broaden our understanding and even change our views based on new information. But we can only do that when we are exposed to a diverse and wide range of views and are encouraged to debate them.
When Larry Page and Sergey Brin were doctoral students at Stanford, they found each other annoying. Page even said in an interview with Wired, “I thought [Sergey] was pretty obnoxious. He had really strong opinions about things, and I guess I did, too.” But they argued with one another, explored the good and bad aspects of their personal views, and eventually teamed up to create Google – one of the most important technological advancements of the last 20 years.
Only a society that fosters a diversity of ideas and promotes toleration and challenge could encourage this kind of relationship.
In the mid-20th century, experts were convinced the increase in global population would lead to mass starvation. Dr. Norman Borlaug disagreed. He went to work and developed a new type of wheat that saved more than a billion people from starvation worldwide – disproving the dominant idea every intellectual insisted was an absolute certainty.
When it’s properly fulfilling its role, education as a Key Institution can advance a free society. But if education fails to promote open discourse, there’s no telling what potential progress could be lost forever.