Guest Commentary

The academic spirit is alive and well at MU

The spirit of respectful academic debate is alive and well at the University of Missouri campus in Columbia.
The spirit of respectful academic debate is alive and well at the University of Missouri campus in Columbia.

American universities have come off in recent news as lonely, dangerous and polarizing places. The University of Missouri in Columbia has been at the center of this storm, and yet our experience of American academia has been very different from the simplified reports in the media.

Take the authors of this commentary: One of us is a conservative straight out of central casting, a pro-life evangelical who is an unapologetic admirer of the American Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution. The other is an enthusiastic Bernie Sanders supporter who co-edited a book urging Americans to go “Beyond the Founders” in understanding their past. Still, we have found common ground and worked together on intellectual projects for years.

In fact, the general spirit of boundary-crossing goodwill on the MU campus has allowed us, in the middle of all the unrest, to create what may be the first self-consciously interdisciplinary and, if we may, “inter-ideological” center for the study of American political thought and history.

At Mizzou’s Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy, we have created a unique place where scholars and students from a variety of disciplines and perspectives can come together to learn, teach, research and write in an environment free of artificial boundaries and entrenched orthodoxies. Political opinions can still be intensely held, but as Thomas Jefferson said, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

When our classes and public lectures take on controversial topics, we keep it on a philosophical and historical plane while still tackling difficult issues and highlighting different perspectives. Just before the 2016 elections, we had a socialist critic of the Democratic Party speak on the future of the left, and a conservative critic of the Republican Party speak on the future of the right. Very few people agreed with either speaker about everything, but everyone who listened to each speaker learned something.

At another event, we had a student activist known for advocating the removal of the campus Jefferson statue on a panel with two leading Jefferson scholars. Everyone said their piece and mostly held their ground, but the whole panel was taking selfies together by the end.

Our inter-ideological approach has given us the unique opportunity to model for our students the virtues of civility, reasoned debate and rigorous intellectual inquiry, to show them that discussion and disagreement are not only possible but desirable in an academic institution. The students, for their part, have responded enthusiastically to this inter-ideological mission, not only by signing up for our programs and classes but by combining themselves in unexpected ways.

This summer, for example, we had 22 students living, working and studying together in Washington, D.C., as part of our Kinder Scholars program. They were spread out across the capital city working for Republicans and Democrats, progressive and conservative think tanks and trade associations, museums and governmental agencies. Past graduates of the program have gone on to work for Republicans and Democrats and for organizations ranging from the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute to the progressive American Constitution Society. More importantly, they have been united by rigorous inquiry into the theoretical and historical foundations of American politics and have developed the ability to listen to and learn from one another.

Despite recent headlines, the true spirit of academia does still exist on campus, and it is strengthened all the more when scholars and students of goodwill reach out across the aisle to work together — an increasingly vital endeavor in our hyperpartisan times.

Justin B. Dyer is professor of political science and director of the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri. Jeffrey L. Pasley is professor of history and associate director of the Kinder Institute.