Campus free speech has become a firestorm issue as college alumni see headline after headline about students shouting down speakers, faculty and student groups demanding that lecturers be disinvited, and other attempts—both overt and covert—at restricting free speech. The cause for concern is real: National surveys show that significant percentages of college students see no problem with restricting a speaker’s voice if they find the speaker’s views upsetting or with barring a journalist from a public assembly if the journalist might publish information with which students disagree.
The national trendlines are worrying. So in this gloomy landscape, it was heartening to read this week that faculty at my alma mater—Kenyon College—have taken a stand, endorsing a strong statement in support of freedom of expression on campus. As the statement reads:
“Because the central mission of the College, liberal education, requires free and open inquiry in all matters, students and faculty should have the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. . . . By listening to and challenging those with whom we disagree, we open ourselves to the possibility of learning. And even when debates and arguments don’t change our opinions, they may help us understand their grounds more fully and improve our ability to defend them rationally and persuasively.”
The clear and articulate statement by Kenyon’s faculty follows the example set by the University of Chicago and its Chicago Principles of free expression. The liberal learning tradition—which, for centuries, has stood as a remarkably durable model of preparing individuals with minds open for professional success and meaningful, thoughtful lives—today faces a glut of cultural and economic pressures. In a high-skill, multi-faceted labor market, how can ideas compete on a level playing field with skills? Can retreating to a “little college” on a Hill with a few thousand souls truly prepare students to navigate both a fierce global marketplace and the complexity of a global society?
The answer is yes, but not unconditionally.
The liberal education model—which challenges students to read and write freely, and to question and engage extensively with disparate, often conflicting ideas—has never been more vital in a pluralist society like the United States. In an era of open information and democratized opinion, citizens face complex choices every moment of every day. They must decipher an endless stream of information for themselves every morning when they power on their smartphones to digest and evaluate instantaneously the legitimacy of what they read.
Fostering debate, nuance, and difference of opinion in the face of overwhelming consensus is what the liberal arts—and institutions like Kenyon— represent at their core. What is the purpose of the liberal arts if not to prepare students to be fully-engaged citizens and adults ready to engage critically with any political, social, or cultural view they encounter? It’s therefore incumbent on colleges to invite—and expect—students to engage fearlessly with all ideas, if for no other reason than to reject them or disprove them using their own ability to discern truth from falsehood or—to quote the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb—the “important and the trivial, the ephemeral and the enduring”?
The great challenge to the liberal arts model is a growing campus culture that teaches students to retreat from ideas that test their own convictions and perceptions. So here’s the condition upon which the fate of the liberal arts enterprise rests: In order for the liberal arts to live up to their highest ideals, colleges must be at the vanguard of protecting free speech and elevating debate—not restricting them.
By passing this statement, Kenyon joins the ranks of institutions with a public commitment to doing so. Tolerance for diverse views enables students to apply a nuanced understanding of the world around them. Too often students learn to recoil from ideas which they find uncomfortable—yet this only empowers the same ideology and behaviors that are incorrect, offensive and at times odious.
With its clear-throated support for free expression, free speech, and open inquiry, Kenyon’s faculty is helping to cement the vital quality that makes it one of the truly unique and indispensable “little colleges” on a Hill.
Ted Eismeier, Kenyon College Class of 2008
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