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Why Universities Must Embrace Free Speech—Or Else

In Academia, America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Communication, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Rhetoric & Communication, Scholarship on August 22, 2018 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The Federalist.

Keith E. Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University, calls his latest book, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, a “reminder”—a term suggesting that we’ve forgotten something or that there’s something so important that we shouldn’t forget it. This something is the purpose of the modern university, which is, or should be, a refuge for open dialogue, rigorous debate, and the free exchange of ideas.

Safe spaces, trigger  warnings, speaker disinvitations, speech zones, no-platforming, physical assaults against speakers—these are sure signs that some university cultures have become illiberal and intolerant, prioritizing indoctrination, orthodoxy, conformity, narrow-mindedness, censorship, and dogmatism over the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and wide dissemination of ideas.

Universities are not one-size-fits-all. The multiplicity among and between institutions of higher education in the United States, from community colleges to liberal-arts colleges to state flagship universities, makes generalizations about them impossible. Modern universities, however, are decidedly committed to research on the nineteenth-century German model. Whittington’s chief subject is this modern university, not religiously affiliated colleges guided by a core mission to spread and inspire doctrinal faith through formal education.

This is a very different model than, say, the distinctly Catholic university contemplated by Cardinal John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University that is predicated on the belief that scientific and philosophical knowledge is intimately tied to the revealed truths of the church. Whittington’s key focus appears to be on those institutions classified as doctoral research universities by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The gravest problem at such institutions is their coercive restrictions on speech.

Newly Relevant Free Speech Concerns

“My concern here,” Whittington says, “is with a particular problem on college campuses that is not new but newly relevant,” namely that “we are in danger of giving up on the hard-won freedoms of critical inquiry that have been wrested from figures of authority over the course of a century.” An ascendant intolerance jeopardizes free speech at universities, which have as their principal objective the formation and transmission of knowledge that itself depends upon free speech and inquiry.

To cultivate a liberal atmosphere tolerant of diverse views, universities must make room for marginalized voices and controversial ideas, submit received customs and conventions to continuous and critical examination, and welcome good-faith arguments that challenge cherished cultural norms and undermine accepted wisdom. Only by subjecting their beliefs to sustained scrutiny may scholars sharpen and refine their claims and achieve mutual understanding. Only by protecting the speech of dissenters from the shaming and retaliation of those who hold majority or dominant views may universities nurture the empathy and humility necessary to maintain constructive, scholarly conversations.

“[T]he value of free speech,” submits Whittington, “is closely associated with the core commitments of the university itself. The failure to adequately foster an environment of free speech on campus represents a failure of the university to fully realize its own ideals and aspirations.” More than that, such failure “subverts the very rationale for having a university and hampers the ability of universities to achieve their most basic goals.” To value the university is to value the free speech that characterizes the university’s goal and function.

In four succinct chapters, Whittington maps the history of the modern American university, demonstrating how free speech is integral to its mission and indispensable to the search for knowledge and understanding. The Jeffersonians’ opposition to the Sedition Act, and John Stuart Mill’s case against compelled silence in On Liberty, present seminal defenses of free expression that gave substance to the modern university’s commitment to vigorous deliberation and civil debate.

Universities Must Decide Where They Stand

Whittington shows that the free-speech ideal has always been contested on campus, its concrete manifestations differing from school to school and context to context. The tension, moreover, between protecting provocative speech and providing for student safety isn’t new. University administrators have long struggled to balance the promise of robust speech with the need for security in light of potentially violent backlash to offensive, incendiary utterances.

To those who abuse the system by inviting notorious speakers to campus to shout odious words that lack intellectual content and are meant only to shock and incite, Whittington offers this wisdom: “When we are making decisions about whom to invite to campus to speak, the goal should be neither to stack the deck with our closest allies nor to sprinkle in the most extreme provocateurs. The goal should be to make available to the campus community thoughtful representatives of serious ideas.”

The Charles Murrays of the world might enjoy more campus appearances, and more serious attention, if there were fewer speaking invitations to those grandstanding Milo Yiannopouloses, whose (typically) puerile messages and (typically) sophomoric style lack substantive intellectual content. Rather than Milo, why not invite one of the many conservative scholars who seek with sincerity and integrity to contribute to the sum of knowledge, but have been disenfranchised and dismissed by left-leaning faculty?

It’s not contradictory to celebrate free speech while urging restraint in selecting competent, well-meaning speakers. A dedication to pushing the limits of acceptable discourse is not, after all, the same as a dedication to learning the true and the good. Discerning the difference, however, is a task for the informed audience, not the campus censors. Suppressing foolish and fallacious ideas deprives students of the opportunity to learn what constitutes foolishness and fallaciousness.

Universities must choose: “They must decide whether they are committed to a joint project of learning and the principles and practices that make learning possible. If universities are to operate at the outer boundaries of our state of knowledge and to push those boundaries further outward, they must be places where new, unorthodox, controversial, and disturbing ideas can be raised and scrutinized.”

If universities cannot be counted on to expand the frontiers of knowledge, who or what will? This weighty question should cut across partisan lines and ideological camps and unite those of disparate backgrounds in a common cause: that of human progress and achievement.


Part Two: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 16, 2016 at 7:00 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

AM:  In your essay “Conservatism, Liberal Education, and the Promise of the Humanities,” one of two essays you contributed to the edition, you state, “There is a broader philosophical conflict at hand between the very principle of academic freedom, encompassing the rights of individuals to engage in scholarly inquiry and espouse contrarian views, and policies currently governing campus discourse.”  What do you mean by this?

MZ: Quite simply, the state of campus discourse is, by its very essence, incompatible with the rights of faculty – and students themselves – to engage in the search for truth. When conduct, particularly verbal conduct, can be reported and penalized through mechanisms designed to “protect” students, we might sense that something much greater is afoot. If such fundamental rights as speech and due process are curtailed – as I feel they have systematically been on today’s campus – then we are no longer interested in educating an informed and responsible citizenry. The great irony in this is that even as faculty and administrators maintain the conceit that students must confront dissonant viewpoints, the viewpoints that qualify are limited and selective. Therefore, I think the fear of faculty to approach teaching or research from a conservative angle, or even to introduce conservative arguments in the context of intellectual debate, is very real. Some things are better left unsaid, especially when tenure, promotion, or funding are on the line.

On the other hand, the concept of academic freedom has been so narrowed as to apply almost exclusively to members of the faculty. The dearth of conservative faculty in the humanities and social sciences makes it difficult to determine the degree to which this privilege might be invoked as a defense against charges of offending progressive student sensibilities. The case of Marquette professor John McAdams that I discuss in the book is not promising. It is fortuitous that the demands of students to be protected from certain ideas are often in harmony with the ideological makeup of the faculty. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the freedom claimed by a largely progressive professoriate is not afforded to the student body, which labors more under the onerous regulations governing speech and conduct.

Aside from being able to report the utterance of harmful words, students have very little stake in academic freedom’s fundamental premise, and their rights have ceased to be part of the conversation on classroom conduct. I don’t count the imposition of trigger warnings and the creation of safe spaces as really striking a blow for freedom or the intellectual pursuit. Faculty might be able to proselytize under the banner of academic freedom, but students have little recourse when scholarly inquiry descends into partisan demagoguery. It speaks volumes that today’s campus will often charge conservative student groups for added security at their events in anticipation of disruption and unrest. The campus in this case is refusing to guarantee what is essentially the safety of free expression. It has been said that the greatest beneficiaries of a political and ideological monoculture are conservative students, who are consistently challenged to refine their arguments and confront opposing viewpoints. But that’s perhaps little compensation when those arguments are preemptively dismissed and delegitimized by an institution unwilling to entertain them. Some critics have been ambivalent about either the extent of curricular politicization that exists on today’s campus or its impact on students. I don’t think either can be overstated.

AM:  The question I hear a lot—and in different contexts—is “what can be done?”  Do you have an answer to that question in light of what you’ve just said? 

MZ:  To answer that important question I would probably qualify some rejections to otherwise bad ideas. Federal funding should not be tied to the amount of money students can be expected to earn upon graduation. However, at some point students must be expected to see some material returns from the meteoric rise of tuition and administrative costs. We have seen an intense regulatory push directed exclusively at for-profit colleges over the last eight years. The question of value in higher education is a good one, and perhaps it shouldn’t only be asked of these for-profits.

Also, while the idea has been floated, I do not believe in any kind of affirmative action for conservative professors. However, departments conspicuously lacking in conservative faculty members might take steps to acknowledge the intellectual costs of such insularity and promote viewpoint diversity, a concept propounded by groups like Heterodox Academy, the National Association of Scholars, and the John William Pope Center. These are not conservative organizations but rather ones that care deeply about the state of discourse on today’s campus and how it adversely affects learning.

Furthermore, while we must heed Michael Oakeshott’s warning not to “suspend conversationality for a politicizing counterrevolution,” a more robust rejection of identity’s preeminent place in in the classroom might restore some dignity to the learning process. It is not atypical for composition students, for example, to be assigned anthologies that are promoted as much for the racial, ethnic, and gender identifications of their authors as the dynamism of their prose or the enduring legacy of their ideas. No doubt many of the essays in these collections are worth modeling and are deserving of study, but not because of predetermined genetic variables. Having students read essays by Max Beerbohm, John Ruskin, or Evelyn Waugh – all the while ignoring their “privilege” – might inadvertently put the focus of the class on prose style, rhetoric, and stylistic precision.

Finally, it should remain up to students to choose their colleges carefully. There are a lot of alternative institutions that have placed the pursuit of knowledge above all else. The market for this kind of place is strong, and those charged with administering higher education could do very well to take notice.

AM:  At one point in the book you mention a “multicultural canon.”  I’m interested in this phrase because I’m interested in canonicity and the idea that there are certain works that are more influential and important than others within a given tradition, and even that certain traditions may produce works that are more influential and important than works produced by other traditions.  You often here people dismiss the idea of a canon but urge the reading of certain texts.  It seems that any support for a program of reading necessarily entails a view of the canon, however different that might be from prevailing consensus.  At a time when English departments are struggling to maintain stable and uniform curricula, and the notion of a canon has become unpopular, what does it mean for a work to be canonical? 

MZ:  While the idea of a canon has become unpopular, it still exists in every department that embraces the multicultural ethos of the university. And it is equally as narrow as the one it sought to replace and far more intransigent. Like so many revolutions, the spirit of canon reform was swept away by a radical zeal to destroy foundations necessary for, in this case, literature’s survival as part of a college curriculum. To me, literature is universal and it has the potential to speak to a common humanity. In short, it should be valued for its own sake and for its cultural status as an expression of artistic endeavor. It has intrinsic value, and its success lies in part on historical continuity – on its relationship to what came before it. In the book, I mention T.S. Eliot’s “historical sense,” the idea that tradition must be defended against forces that would destroy it out of hand. I think that in many ways this has happened. Today’s literature has become so balkanized as to render impossible the continuance of any sort of shared cultural value system. To that point, I would also argue that an English curriculum consisting predominantly of identity-based literature (African-American, Native American, Women’s, Latinx, etc.) can in no real way be considered diverse. As it is, those who might turn to literature for the truth it tells, for its contemplation of ideas, or for its linguistic execution have been in retreat.

I’m not sure anyone would make the case that the traditional canon was never fluid or that it hasn’t contained glaring omissions. It has, and they should be rectified. But whereas critics in the past denounced the traditional canon as the product of “institutional tastemaking,” today’s demands for courses that aim to represent some unique, singular experience are guilty of the same thing. A canon is necessarily foundational. It isn’t, however, necessarily exclusionary, and an inclusive canon should be exactly that. This is a very long way of saying that a canonical work might be one that embodies an idea or an epoch, or one that masterfully portrays the psychological depth of a character in crisis. There are many divergent opinions as to this question, and I don’t consider myself an authority. But my vision is this: surely others have treated the same subjects as, say, Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison, and Saul Bellow. We just have to be able to say that few have perhaps done it better. The reader may take his (or her) pick as to what authors deserve special consideration. The point is that the literature’s function and its success as a work of art are what we consider first and foremost. I think that case can be made, and reinforcing the idea of great literature – asserting its very existence – may benefit our discipline greatly.

AM:  If a student were to ask you for 10 writers you believed every person must read before he or she dies, who would they be?

MZ:  This is a question every literature person longs for, and at the risk of inevitably short-changing some, here is my list, in absolutely no particular order: Ernest Hemingway, George Eliot, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Hardy, Saul Bellow, and Vladamir Nabakov.


Part Three coming soon….

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