Can Universities Open the Minds of Bigots?

Bigots are not born.  They are made. 

Parents, teachers, religious leaders, youth leaders, friends, and even enemies conspire to teach young people to close their eyes, and minds, to different ideas.  Universities are often the FIRST time, and in some lives, the ONLY time, when a young person is challenged to address the assumptions that have been spoon-fed to them their whole lives.  To be a bigot is simple.  All it takes is the belief that you are “right” regardless of evidence.  All it takes is unwillingness: the unwillingness to consider alternative viewpoints, to engage in debate, to accept the fact that their loved ones have been responsible for limiting their perspective rather than expanding it.   To spot a bigot is easy.  Find someone who is unwilling to listen. 

One of the reasons that my father, Dr. Anand Malik, taught for over 30 years at the University of Tennessee, although he was qualified to teach at much more prestigious institutions, was his dedication to the unique value that a university provides.  A university’s unique value comes not only from confronting bigotry, but breaking through it… to opening minds to new ideas and broader understanding.  Some will not change, but many will.  Teaching at a university in Tennessee afforded him the opportunity to address far more bigotry than at more elite institutions.  He had far more impact there.

I am so very proud of my father.  He had every reason to despise bigots, yet he chose not to hate.  He had been a victim of bigotry, hatred, and ignorance, and chose to overcome it.  My father grew up in Lahore (a city that was in India prior to the partition of that country).  As the son of a Hindu father and a Sikh mother, he was happy there… but the anger and hatred that erupted during partition drove armies of bigots into the streets to riot and burn and attack and kill.  Thousands of people were dragged from their homes or workplaces and beaten (or trapped in buildings set on fire).  My family left in a hurry with few possessions.

During the civil rights movement, my father took difficult political positions in the Faculty senate.  He asked the university to confront long-standing policies that kept black students segregated and disenfranchised.  The institution of "Tenure” protected him.  That is one of the unique values of a University: protection of the right to speak honestly, especially when it is not popular with those in power. 

This week, another professor had to face bigots at a southern university.  This time, it was Dr. Charles Negy, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, faced bigotry in his upper-division course on Cross Cultural Psychology.  Dr. Negy, a Mexican American graduate of Texas A&M University is just as personally aware of the implications of bigotry as my father was.  He has seen bigotry in action.  He is very well qualified to teach the course he is teaching. 

This time, apparently, the bigots in his class identified themselves.  Dr. Negy sent an e-mail in response which was posted onto Reddit.  I have copied his letter from Reddit onto this blog because I support Dr. Negy’s viewpoint.  For those folks who don’t realize it, Dr. Negy doesn’t have tenure at the UCF.  He is an Associate Professor, and can be fired for taking a principled stance, although there is no evidence that he will be.  That said, his stance is controversial, especially in the South.  He has asked his students, who learned their bigotry from their parents, to challenge their thinking.  Some of those parents will be certain to apply pressure on the administration to fire Dr. Negy.  If enough of us speak out in support of his principled stance, there will be counter-pressure to help him. 

Here is Dr. Negy’s letter to his students. 

Hello, Cross-Cultural students, I am writing to express my views on how some of you have conducted yourself in this university course you are taking with me. It is not uncommon for some-to-many American students, who typically, are first-generation college students, to not fully understand, and maybe not even appreciate the purpose of a university. Some students erroneously believe a university is just an extension of high school, where students are spoon-fed “soft” topics and dilemmas to confront, regurgitate the “right” answers on exams (right answers as deemed by the instructor or a textbook), and then move on to the next course.

Not only is this not the purpose of a university (although it may feel like it is in some of your other courses), it clearly is not the purpose of my upper-division course on Cross-Cultural Psychology. The purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to struggle intellectually with some of life’s most difficult topics that may not have one right answer, and try to come to some conclusion about what may be “the better answer” (It typically is not the case that all views are equally valid; some views are more defensible than others). Another purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to engage in open discussion in order to critically examine beliefs, behaviors, and customs. Finally, another purpose of a university education is to help students who typically are not accustomed to thinking independently or applying a critical analysis to views or beliefs, to start learning how to do so. We are not in class to learn “facts” and simply regurgitate the facts in a mindless way to items on a test. Critical thinking is a skill that develops over time. Independent thinking does not occur overnight. Critical thinkers are open to having their cherished beliefs challenged, and must learn how to “defend” their views based on evidence or logic, rather than simply “pounding their chest” and merely proclaiming that their views are “valid.” One characteristic of the critical, independent thinker is being able to recognize fantasy versus reality; to recognize the difference between personal beliefs which are nothing more than personal beliefs, versus views that are grounded in evidence, or which have no evidence.

Last class meeting and for 15 minutes today, we addressed “religious bigotry.” Several points are worth contemplating:

  1. Religion and culture go “hand in hand.” For some cultures, they are so intertwined that it is difficult to know with certainty if a specific belief or custom is “cultural” or “religious” in origin. The student in class tonight who proclaimed that my class was supposed to be about different cultures (and not religion) lacks an understanding about what constitutes “culture.” (of course, I think her real agenda was to stop my comments about religion).

  2. Students in my class who openly proclaimed that Christianity is the most valid religion, as some of you did last class, portrayed precisely what religious bigotry is. Bigots—racial bigot or religious bigots—never question their prejudices and bigotry. They are convinced their beliefs are correct. For the Christians in my class who argued the validity of Christianity last week, I suppose I should thank you for demonstrating to the rest of the class what religious arrogance and bigotry looks like. It seems to have not even occurred to you (I’m directing this comment to those students who manifested such bigotry), as I tried to point out in class tonight, how such bigotry is perceived and experienced by the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the non-believers, and so on, in class, to have to sit and endure the tyranny of the masses (the dominant group, that is, which in this case, are Christians).

  3. The male student who stood up in class and directed the rest of the class to “not participate” by not responding to my challenge, represented the worst of education. For starters, the idea that a person—student or instructor—would instruct other students on how to behave, is pretty arrogant and grossly disrespects the rights of other students who can and want to think for themselves and decide for themselves whether they want to engage in the exchange of ideas or not. Moreover, this “let’s just put our fingers in our ears so we will not hear what we disagree with” is appallingly childish and exemplifies “anti-intellectualism.” The purpose of a university is to engage in dialogue, debate, and exchange ideas in order to try and come to some meaningful conclusion about an issue at hand. Not to shut ourselves off from ideas we find threatening.

Universities hold a special place in society where scholarly-minded folks can come together and discuss controversial, polemic, and often uncomfortable topics. Universities, including UCF, have special policies in place to protect our (both professors’ and students’) freedom to express ourselves. Neither students nor professors have a right to censor speech that makes us uncomfortable. We’re adults. We’re at a university. There is no topic that is “off-limits” for us to address in class, if even only remotely related to the course topic. I hope you will digest this message, and just as important, will take it to heart as it may apply to you.

Charles Negy

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4 thoughts on “Can Universities Open the Minds of Bigots?”

  1. Just wanted to say that I thoroughly disagree with Dr Negy. I think rather than facing bigots..he was the bigot not the students he was addressing. He was calling people who are religious believers bigots…well if they didn’t think Christianity was the best religion they wouldn’t be Christians. Seems the professor thinks that being religious is bigotry. Personally I oppose his anti-religious bigotry but despite that I don’t actually hope he loses his job because I do actually believe in free speech..for everyone (even those religious people, like me, that you and Negy seem to want to be condescending and arrogant towards).

  2. @Jonathan,

    I do not want you to feel abused. I do wish to challenge all my readers, including you, to consider the views of others, including Dr. Negy.

    I agree that a Christian should believe in Christianity. I am just as religious in my own way. I believe that Christians should SHARE their viewpoint, but not to drown out the viewpoints shared by others, and not to block out the ideas coming their way. I do NOT want to overwhelm the voices of my Christian neighbors and friends, or ignore their words honestly given. Most of my friends are willing to hear my words in return. Won’t you?

    A person UNWILLING to hear the viewpoints of others is a bigot. Dr. Negy showed no unwillingness to listen to the Christian viewpoint. Christians are welcome to participate in his class. That is completely clear from his letter.

    However, disrupting the class to suggest that other students (assumably the Christian students) should intentionally become unwilling to listen is a desperate effort to resort to bigotry instead of growing, learning, and emerging into a multi-cultural world.

    I implore you, Jonathan, to be willing to accept the ideas of other people. There are other people in the world who may not agree with you, but may yet have valid and important things to say. I am willing to learn from you. Are you willing to learn from them?

    — Nick

    1. I considered Dr. Negy’s viewpoint and patently disagree with it in the strongest terms. If being unwilling to hear the viewpoints of others is bigotry then I would suggest that Dr. Negy himself is the bigot not his Christian students. Perhaps those students you assert were being disruptive simply realized that no matter what they said it would accomplish nothing to continue to participate with Dr. Negy and simply decided and encouraged their fellow Christian students to not continue to engage in pointless discussion that would accomplish nothing. I don’t know for certain as I’m not a mind reader but I would suggest that it’s a possible explaination for their behavior. It has been my experience that it is not Christians, in general, that drown out or are unwilling to listen to others’ views but rather those who aren’t Christians..particularly people on the political left. Listening to someone else’s views are one thing..of which even I am willing to do however agreeing with them is not something someone who happens to be a Christian should ever be willing to do. I am concerned that the word “bigot” is, like the words “racist” or “sexist” or even “homophobe” are terms thrown around in order to silence dissent particularly used against Christians or politically conservative individuals.
      I do not believe in multiculturalism that basically asserts, as per my understanding, that no culture is any better or worse than any other. It is a view I do not subscribe to nor am likely to in the foreseeable future. Some cultures are better than others and some are worse. I have never asserted that there is no important or valid ideas to be had from people with whom I disagree on a particular topic and when an idea is valid and worthwhile I embrace it. One example is Ayn Rand, I do not agree with everything she advocated but the things I do agree with her on I take onboard while discarding the ideas with which I disagree. Likewise I hear what you’re saying and am perfectly willing to listen even if in the end I disagree as I do with what you have written here. It just seems to me that universities, which are supposed to be the bastion of free thought and free inquiry are less so towards people of particular viewpoints – most notably anyone of a Christian or at the very least politically conservative points of view. A university should welcome ALL points of view even the politically incorrect views held by Christians or simply conservatives. Not expecting to see that anytime soon but like Pandora there is still one thing left in the bottom of the box – hope.

  3. @Jonathan,

    Thank you for taking the time to provide a passionate defense of your position. I believe you are an articulate and honest individual. While I believe we are not as far apart as we may seem, you have been willing to share your viewpoint without resorting to the kinds of poor citizenship that is so typical of internet discussions. I honestly thank you for that.

    Dr. Negy asked his students to consider, and struggle, with some of life’s biggest questions. He stated “It typically is not the case that all views are equally valid; some views are more defensible than others.” You stated a very similar position when you stated “Some cultures are better than others and some are worse.” In that case, you fundamentally agree with Dr. Negy.

    You appear educated. I cannot be certain, but I would guess that you have an education similar to that of a four-year university. You have found a cultural context in which you are comfortable.

    Most of the young students who attend Dr. Negy’s class have a cultural context that they are comfortable in, but have not critically examined yet. They have NOT compared their culture with others. Their conclusion of “comfort” is not based on a conscious decision. Rather it is the result of the normal “culturation” process that happens during childhood. In order to critically examine one’s cultural choices, a student must step outside their comfort zone and imagine what it would be like to follow someone else’s cultural choices. That does not mean that the student must AGREE with those alternatives… only that they must stretch outside their comfort zone to UNDERSTAND.

    You basically expressed support for that position in your response to me. I hope we see eye-to-eye on that.

    Realize that the process of stepping outside one’s comfort zone is challenging. It is normal to want to resort to the “tried and true” and simply state that “where I am is the right place for me” without doing the hard work of examining why.

    There simply is no room, in a setting where all students are there to struggle with their OWN lack of comfort, for any student to proclaim that their culture and religion are more valid than others. That is not openness. That is at best bigotry and at worst, an attempt to convert others.

    I think you may find that institutions of higher education that assume that a student should NOT be asked to critically examine the choices handed to them by their parents in the context of other cultures and religions is doing those students a disservice. Any person who says “my way is right” without know WHY is vulnerable to having their mind changed for them by someone else.

    All a student need to have, in order to participate easily in classes like those taught by Dr. Negy, is a critical and clear understanding of the grandeur and majesty of their own culture… what makes it right for them, and what makes it applicable for their social circle. Most students need to learn that. It would be wrong to interrupt that learning or ask others not to partake in it.

    I believe we may end up disagreeing on the core point here, but rest assured that I value this conversation and the opportunity to share with you and others. Thank you again for taking the time to respond in a thoughtful and civil manner.

    — Nick Malik

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