The Wound in American Education — Review: recent debate on free speech in the academy

Feb 10, 2019 by

Review: recent debate on free speech in the academy

By Joseph Bottum –

The failure of American colleges to promote free speech and intellectual diversity is like an open wound. It stains the imagination, obscuring paths of investigation with a sick pus. It drains the vitality of thought, leaving the mind weakened. And it strains intellectual discourse—the Socratic ideal of conversation—by making us fearful, anxious, and self-censoring.

Ideas deserve better treatment. The life of the mind requires a more nurturing care than we now give it in the multitrillion-dollar temple of education that we have constructed with America’s colleges and universities. Far from disciplining its intellectual eccentrics, far from expelling its cerebral gadflies, academia ought to protect and celebrate them. Even when they are wrong, they are more rational than the dogmatists who hold right opinions without understanding the arguments that make them right.

Several books on the topic have appeared over the past year and a half. With Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, for example, Princeton’s Keith E. Whittington argues that recent campus censorship reveals our colleges have lost a strong sense of why they exist. “We are in danger,” he writes, “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.”

In Free Speech on Campus, the University of Pennsylvania’s Sigal R. Ben-Porath claims, “An inclusive and welcoming campus is one that must recognize the necessity of free speech.” In the identically titled Free Speech on Campus, UC Berkeley’s Erwin Chemerinsky and UC Irvine’s Howard Gillman—both senior academic administrators—argue that “there is no way to define an unacceptable, punishment-worthy idea without putting genuinely important new thinking and societal critique at risk.” In Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces, Phillips Academy’s John Palfrey insists, “Free expression and diversity are essential components of democracy.”

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