Nicholas Kristof just echoed my thoughts.
I saw a version of this not-challenging-one's-prejudices problem in college as well. Many of the people who go to college, from what I saw, weren’t interested in the usual liberal-arts or higher-education line of guff about broadening the mind or whatnot. They wanted to do their time (pace all the usual comparisons between educational and penal institutions, ha ha), get their sheepskin, and get a shot at making more money than all the other people they knew who were stuck pumping gas or slinging Slurpees.
It is, I guess, human nature to surround ourselves with things that are most like ourselves, or that reflect our beliefs. There was a time when we didn’t really have a choice in the matter: we lived and died in the same spot on the globe, and what little word we received about strange doings in strange lands was filed under Mythology or Xenophobia. But now we have the choice – although, as with the first iteration of the use of anything new, we’re using it mostly to continue the same bad old habits without thinking about the consequences of extending a given behavior globally.
This sort of thing is what higher education was supposed to be about, at least in part: giving someone the sense that the world was bigger, far less definitive, and more nuanced than you might suspect – and giving them the tools to spar with both it and themselves. Unfortunately, I get the feeling too many of those tools arrive far too late in the educational process to do much good; we should be teaching logic and critical thinking as far back as grade school, alongside arithmetic and spelling, and not confine it to some adjunct of the computer sciences or more esoteric specialties like philosophy (which was how I wound up taking and acing that particular course).
What’s disturbing, according to Kristof’s piece, is that most people with an education don’t use what they have learned to further their understanding after they grab their diploma and split. They use it to insulate themselves from anything that might further disturb their world-view. Some of this is not bad: there are some ideas that are worth rejecting out of hand because they don’t even pass the most basic common-sense sniff tests, and without some bedrock core of ideas you can’t build anything like a coherent outlook. But it doesn’t help when the end result is people who can’t even come into the room and have a coherent discussion because they all hate each other on (potentially totally fictitious) principle.
It has become more crucial than ever that people be able to challenge and test things they simply accept within themselves on face value. This does not mean that they should be compelled to shed and re-clothe themselves in the idea of the moment for the sake of passing fancies or public pressure – that’s just the same thing in its antipodeal form. Rather, we need to inspire people to understand how it is just as useful to leave a point of view behind as it is to defend and uphold it (something I get the impression they do for the sake of solidarity with a larger whole, whether real or imagined).
The only thing that seems possible, as Kristof suggests, is for each of us to find within ourselves a way to spar with that Great Immutable, and maybe move Leviathan by inches at a time.