Friday night’s horrendous attack on Paris fills us all with grief and dismay. We grieve for the victims, their friends and families, and we are dismayed that the communities we have built and the human connections we cherish can feel so suddenly vulnerable.
History teaches us that extremism – insistence that one is in possession of the unique truth – leads to suffering. Years ago, the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin identified the dangers of “the pursuit of the ideal.” Those who adhere to belief systems – religious or secular – that claim absolute certainty about what is right and wrong are almost inevitably drawn to persecuting those who hold other perspectives.
The extremism that motivated the events in Paris, 9/11 in New York, and other recent conspiracies across the Middle East and Africa is not unique. It has many precursors – from the Inquisition, to the witch trials of colonial New England, to the mass executions that sparked World War II, to ethnic cleansing in Cambodia. Blind adherence to ideology, a conviction that one alone is in possession of the whole and genuine truth, is a recipe for disaster.
Here at Coursera, along with our university and educational institution partners around the world, we are confronting extremism through education. Through our skills-based courses and Specializations, we hope to offer millions the opportunity to escape the socioeconomic conditions that are conducive to extremism. And through our liberal arts courses, we seek to challenge established beliefs, confront closed-mindedness, and encourage learners to think for themselves.
The truths obtained by critical thinking are rarely if ever certainties; they are contingent and provisional, subject to revision if confronted by superior logic or disconfirming evidence. And because our truths are not certainties, we learn to tolerate those who reach different conclusions. Toleration allows us to hear opposing views, and open-mindedness allows us to refine our views of what is true, and our views of how to live an ethical life.
If we are tolerant, we can live in peace and harmony with those we cannot persuade. If we are open-minded and reason independently and creatively, we can improve ourselves as ethical beings, and we can, if we choose, make the world a better place. Universal access to high quality education can advance these objectives and aspirations.
Freedom, toleration, and open-mindedness: these are values that propel the great academic institutions that are our partners. Even as we grieve for the victims of the terror inflicted in Paris, we will go on with our worthy work, fighting terrorism through education. We invite learners of all backgrounds to join us in forming a community based on mutual respect, intellectual curiosity, and the pursuit of a better world.
CEO of Coursera