Universities stepping up in defense of free speech

College Protests
In March, Middlebury College students turned their backs to author Charles Murray during his lecture.

 

The discourse about uncivil discourse on college campuses grows daily. Whether it be the protesters who stopped invited speaker and conservative commentator Ann Coulter at Berkeley, or the disruption of a presentation by libertarian political scientist and author Charles Murray at Middlebury College, those offended by intellectual conservatives seem to believe that not allowing them to speak will make things better. Some maintain they are protecting students from ideas they consider offensive.

Colleges are hardly alone in their vehemence against ideological diversity. Driven by divides in Washington, many who would ordinarily place the right of free speech high among democracy’s most sacred ideals feel obliged to deny it when they disagree with what is being said.

How to handle these situations on campus is difficult at best. They are, however, not new.

In 1758 French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvetius’ published his book, On the Mind. It was condemned both by the Parliament of Paris and the Sorbonne, France’s leading university. The book was publicly burned. Following the burning, his fellow philosopher Voltaire purportedly said that while he wholly disagreed with Helvetius’ thinking, he would defend to the death his right to convey it.

Voltaire’s statement on free speech is paraphrased by many, but is unfortunately internalized by few. The willingness to listen to divergent points of view and try to comprehend what others are saying is a skill still sadly lacking today. This trend is especially disconcerting in academe. where, in the height of irony, some universities are literally and figuratively closing their gates to divergent thought.

Recently about a dozen universities have signed on to a new doctrine written at the University of Chicago that puts open dialogue and free speech above political correctness. Individual faculty are stepping up too. Currently about 900 academics are members of the Heterodox Academy. The Academy’s goal is to broaden the diversity of opinions on campus. This new organization claims its members come from a wide political spectrum with 25 percent considering themselves “moderates.”

The Heterodox Academy is measuring how well elite schools are faring in their acceptance of divergent thinking on campus. At the top of the list is the University of Chicago, which has a strong tradition of debate and open dialogue.

As a young assistant professor at Northern Illinois University in the l970s I was fortunate to attend several lectures given by Milton Friedman. His conservative, market-oriented economic policies were hardly universally accepted on or off campus. However, Friedman himself, along with his faculty colleagues and the administration, insisted that after each lecture a debate on various public policies would be held among Friedman and those representing different views.

Those debates offered some of the most enlightening thinking I ever encountered. They helped form my middle-of-the-road economic policy views. They also helped shaped my opinion about what a college experience should be. Those experiences served me well in later years as a college president.

One can intellectualize about the benefits of ideological diversity in any institution, particularly universities. But at its base, the key component in ensuring open dialogue is the willingness on the part of those who hold vehemently to their opinions to open their minds enough to listen to others. It may sound quaint, but the simple act of listening and being cordial while doing so is a much-underrated attribute today on campus and off.

Organizations like Heterodox Academy can help steer the way toward a willingness to listen to differing points of view. However, it also takes civil people who can agree to disagree productively, learning from one another’s discourse rather than automatically shunning each other’s thinking.

If students can listen to different points of view they might learn something. If they don’t, they will emerge from their college experience with minds more closed than when they entered. That is not what a college education should be about. It’s not what a republic shaped by dialogue and compromise should be about either.

 

Michael A. MacDowell is president emeritus of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., and managing director of the Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation.  rmmacdowe@misericordia.edu