Justin Dyer: The Value of “Questions We Can’t Answer”
On college campuses across the country, free speech is under fire. Earlier this month, the issue captured national attention, when protesters at Middlebury College disrupted sociologist Charles Murray’s lecture and assaulted a professor, who had to be taken to the hospital. And the newest controversy is unfolding at Wellesley College.
The dustup started when Laura Kipnis, a Northwestern University professor who has written critically of federal Title IX sexual assault investigations, came to speak during Censorship Awareness Week. Before her speech, a student group released a video critique, “Shutting Down Bull**** with SAAFE,” or Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone.
In a March 20 email, faculty members of Wellesley’s Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity reacted to these events with their own attack on long-held norms of campus free expression. In effect, their response to Censorship Awareness Week was to urge more censorship.
According to the faculty group, even inviting a controversial speaker “impose[s] on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty” and can cause “harm” and “bullying” of students by compelling them to “invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers’ arguments.”
So, students and faculty are urged to exercise caution in inviting speakers, and perhaps refrain from inviting intellectual gadflies. The message — shocking for any institution of learning — is that Wellesley students should not need to tax their minds and hearts rebutting arguments they find disagreeable.
As a Wellesley alumna, I find this alarming. What would a campus without disagreement look like? How can Wellesley do its job of preparing women leaders to challenge orthodoxies and make their mark on the world without unfettered commitment to freedom of expression and dialogue? As the college’s own mission statement points out: “There is no greater benefit to one’s intellectual and social development . . . than the forthright engagement with and exploration of unfamiliar viewpoints and experiences.”
Campuses need to be environments that cultivate mutual respect. That doesn’t come from squelching views deemed unfashionable. After the Middlebury debacle, hundreds of scholars from across the political spectrum joined Princeton Professors Cornel West and Robert P. George in opposing efforts to silence alternative viewpoints, noting that “dogmatism and groupthink . . . are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.”
President Barack Obama articulated precisely this point in his 2016 Howard University commencement speech: No matter how disagreeable an idea may be, it should be engaged and beaten on the “battlefield of ideas,” rather than preemptively suppressed.
The defense of free expression is particularly vital at campuses such as Wellesley, where one side dominates. An overwhelming 79 percent of Wellesley’s 2016 graduating class supported either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders for president. Far from giving in to censorial elements on campus, colleges should strengthen their support for voices that make the majority think through their opinions.
Wellesley’s board of trustees should follow through on the rhetoric of its mission statement by creating a board-level policy. They can look to the Chicago Principles on free expression as a model — as at least 17 major colleges and universities across the country have already done, including Princeton, Columbia, and Vanderbilt.
Wellesley should also continue to support programs that broaden the range of campus perspectives, such as the Freedom Project, which invited Kipnis to speak.
Some speakers and ideas may make students uncomfortable, but discomfort is not injury, and full-throated back-and-forth is not bullying.
What is the purpose of a liberal arts education if not to listen, consider, and question? Students are best served by a vibrant culture where free expression and debate thrive, in which orthodoxies are challenged. As the fight for free speech rages, now is the time to engage challenging ideas — not to emulate the ostrich, burying its head in the sand.
Alexis Zhang is the research associate/editor of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. She is a Wellesley College alumna and a former student director of Wellesley’s Freedom Project.
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