Marketplace of Ideas: A Poorly Chosen Analogy

The last few days, I’ve been thinking about the idea of the university being a “marketplace of ideas”.  Like many such analogies, or metaphors, I’ve come to think that this one was created by people who don’t understand the university.  Moreover, it is deeply flawed and dangerous as a concept.

Considering the university (or any educational institution) as a marketplace is a false conception.  Comparing the two effectively commodifies ideas and thought.  It introduces, or creates, the idea that we can, or should, simply go shopping for the ideas we like.  This has always been a dangerous idea, but is especially so in the Digital Age.  In an era and culture in which the likes of Alex Jones and Steve Bannon are given the same breadth of audience as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Fareed Zakaria, and in which it is increasingly common to commit character assassination against those with whom one does not agree (ref. the attacks against noted geneticist and food biologist Kevin Folta), conceptualizing thought and ideas as commodities that we can shop for and buy is dangerous.

This concept also creates the false assumption that all ideas are somehow equal and should be given equal weight.

As I tell my students, virtually all theories have potential, but not all theories or ideas are created equal.  The measure of a theory or idea’s strength lies in the evidence that supports it and our ability to test it (and, of course, whether it passes objective testing, often in competition with other ideas and theories).

The university is, and always has been I think, a proving ground for ideas (not a marketplace).  That is, the university is not a place where we shop around for ideas, but a place where we test ideas and theories.  We challenge ideas and try to break them.  Those ideas and theories that fail, we either try to salvage and fix (ex. Linnaean taxonomy), before retesting, or discard if they are unsalvageable (ex. theories of racial supremacy).  Those that survive testing, we keep and teach until such time (if any) that they are supplanted by better supported or more refined theories or ideas.

The misunderstanding of the role of the university is, I think, one reason (of many, and perhaps the most innocuous reason) that universities are criticized so heavily.  Particularly by conservative commentators.  The common refrain from such individuals is a screed against professors “pushing liberal ideology” and “unfairly attacking conservative values” (ex. Creationism).  The reality is that the professors, the university, the proving ground of ideas and theories has considered many conservative ideas and theories, has tested them, and has found that they cracked under the pressure of testing and exposure to competing ideas and theories (ex. natural selection and evolution), therefore they are not taught, because they hold no weight or less weight than their competitors.

One comment on “Marketplace of Ideas: A Poorly Chosen Analogy

  1. Calmgrove says:

    The other analogy I’ve seen is the university campus as a forum. Now the classical forum was sometimes used for commerce, but mostly its modern equivalent is seen as a place where discussion and debate take place, which is a bit closer to what you highlight.

    But that’s the problem with analogies, they only work so far and, as you emphasise, they can at best mislead and at worst be completely inappropriate.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s