Ticklish Ears

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What’s a marketplace of ideas?

I was reading this interesting tidbit at InsideHigherEd today. It concerns the establishment of a dress code at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Pharmacy.

The new code asks students to keep midriffs covered, and to leave items like tank tops, hats, athletic shorts, and tops with spaghetti straps in the closet when they come to class.

I personally don’t see what the big deal is with having a dress code, but then, I spent twenty years in an organization with a pretty explicit (and strict) dress code. So it may depend on perspective.

Anyway, as usual, what really drew my attention was a commenter:

Both the college and some of the previous posters seem to assume that having a dress code in professional settings makes it legitimate.

Just as universities are places to train professionals, they are also places to foster a “marketplace of ideas.?

Enforcing artificial value systems by way of dress codes is anathema to this mission.

Feel free to comment on whether or not the commenter’s argument is valid. But even that’s not my concern. No, what struck me this morning was the invocation of the term “marketplace of ideas”. Like “academic freedom,” this concept is supposed to convey that somehow anything goes at the university. The subtle implication is that all ideas are equally valid (in some sense). But that’s not what a marketplace is all about. Not everything sells in a marketplace. In fact, a lot of wares are not even offered for sale in the marketplace. In a marketplace, there is competition. There are winners and losers.

Now understand that I’m not arguing against the university as a marketplace of ideas. I think it is. Ideas are proposed and they either fly or they don’t. Perhaps someone sees an idea and thinks of a better idea to hawk. There are winners and losers among the ideas. But not all ideas even make it to the selling table.

But I don’t think that’s what the commenter meant. And I don’t think that’s what is usually meant when you hear someone talk about the “marketplace of ideas.”

What do you think? Is the university meant to foster a marketplace of ideas? And if so, what does the marketplace look like?

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