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LANGUAGE

We argue about campus free speech because we forget what the university is for

The combination of highly visible protests combined with the varying university responses has lately reignited the debate over free speech on campus. Longstanding opponents of free speech have suddenly declared its importance, and have noticed how recent ideas about how to erode cultural and jurisprudential free speech norms might actually be used for ill — that is, might actually be used against people they like. 

As Steve McGuire of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni noted on X, publications from the New York Times to Vox that have spent years sounding reluctant to say anything positive about America’s unusually broad legal protections for speech now seem to regret it, as universities crack down on student encampments protesting for Gaza. “It has not gone unnoticed … that many of those who are now demanding the right to protest have previously sought to curtail the speech of those whom they declared hateful,” the New York Times editorial board allowed in May. “Free-speech radicals need to reject the premise that a certain set of words should be set aside as ‘hate’ and prosecuted as crimes,” the New Yorker’s Jay Caspian Kang wrote two days later, contrary to the sleazy attacks on free speech colleagues such as Andrew Marantz have made a career of publishing in that magazine. Vox, like the much-memed character from the sketch in I Think You Should Leave insisting that “we’re all trying to find the guy who did this,” published Eric Levitz arguing that “progressives would be better equipped to resist the present crackdown on pro-Palestinian advocacy had social justice activists not previously popularized an expansive conception of harmful speech.” In short, just when it had become instrumentally valuable again to the short-term strategic political needs of young leftists, multiple major outlets among the legacy media decided to take the brave step of endorsing a core human right they had spent years attacking.

Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California on Thursday, April 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

It has, however, become such a commonplace of American intellectual and political discourse for our deepest disagreements to crop up on campus and be resolved through debates over university policy that something important has been forgotten. In all of the fighting over Israel and the pro-Palestinian protests on campus, and the right to block walkways with a tent on campus, and free speech on campus, something is lost. Namely, what a college is, and why it has almost nothing to do with any of this.

There’s a concept in science fiction known as the “generation ship,” a massive interstellar starship so called because the voyage to distant galaxies is so lengthy that entire generations can live and die before it reaches its destination. Some writers have taken this novel concept further, such that the inhabitants come to forget their original purpose, believing their ship is the world itself. This more or less sums up the present situation of higher education in America: it is a particular vessel for transmitting knowledge and learning across generations, but we have come to mistake it for society at large. Granted, the dynamic of an organization losing the memory of its original purpose is hardly unique to that institution. But it is clear enough across every available media platform that we are simply more concerned with the goings-on of universities than, say, the DMV.

And yet, as our recurring debates over free speech on campus demonstrate, our interest is not commensurate with understanding the university properly. The liberal democratic justification of free speech has both positive and negative valences. The positive case was perhaps best articulated by John Stuart Mill: that democratic citizens benefit from being exposed to the widest available range of ideas. The negative case draws on the long experience of the Wars of Religion and is summarized by Judith Shklar’s “liberalism of fear”: limits on speech (and other rights) ultimately pose a danger that we ourselves will become the subjects of coercion.

But neither of these are germane to the circumstances of higher education. Nonetheless, as the university became economically yoked to the wider society in the postwar era, higher education increasingly came to reflect the larger society that sustained it. And with the proliferation of mass education, student population and tuition swelled, along with the expectations of the kind of experiences a university was to provide. If classes, then why not psychological counseling? And if counseling, then why not state-of-the-art gyms? And if gyms, then why not perfectly demographically representative student bodies, and video game labs, and work-study programs? And if all these, then why not the exhilarating experience of political protests?

Thus, we have constructed a university that maps in all particulars onto the larger democratic society of which it forms a part. But as with Borges’s story about the map that is the exact same size as the kingdom it depicts, such an institution has lost its raison d’etre. There are, by now, entire fields and departments that produce virtually no meaningful or lasting scholarship, being primarily organized around various political agendas. This in turn creates its own reality, so we end up arguing over second-order free speech principles, such as whether it’s legitimate for such-and-such speaker or department to take bizarre and fringe positions rather than how doing so furthers knowledge and understanding in the first place.

By the same token, the current protests have produced highly unedifying debates such as “were the fake border police who took over a public space also instituting particular controls against Jews?” Who cares! It’s not that this is an uninteresting question, but it is an example of what the philosopher Bernard Williams called “one thought too many.” The more salient question is: Why are people in an elite place of learning cosplaying as refugees and/or border guards? Forget the debates about whether slogans like “globalizing the intifada” cross lines; why are they yelling slogans at all? Forget for a moment the grotesque content of a sign pointing at Jewish classmates reading “al-Qasam’s next targets.” Why are they waving signs? Plato’s Symposium this isn’t — and not just because of the replacement of wine and pederasty with Adderall and consent forms. 

Defenders of the campus protesters have, seemingly accurately, attributed some of the worst behavior to outside agitators. But this is precisely the point: that the activities of the students (and increasingly faculty) attracted such people in the first place. It is rarely the case, after all, that outside agitators attempt to infiltrate classes on linear algebra or the metaphysical poets.

Jonathan Haidt has argued for ensuring that students are exposed to a wider range of political perspectives than the contemporary university allows. The founders of UATX have taken this ethos one step further in supposedly organizing their curriculum around “forbidden” teachings, which has more than a whiff of Hogwarts about it. But the problem here isn’t simply that students read, say, too much Fanon and not enough Burke, much less that they’re forced to rely on samizdat to learn. 

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It is not possible to have a productive discussion about the scope and limits of speech within a university setting without some consideration of substance with respect to the purpose of a university — much the way you could not have a meaningful argument about the rules of basketball without some understanding of what distinguishes it from other sports. Proceduralism alone is simply not enough. And restoring conditions of order and civility would require not a return to viewpoint neutrality but the revival of a more robust account of liberal education altogether.

The latest excitement over the Israel-Gaza war will pass (not least because summer vacation is at hand), but the fundamental tension remains, as elite institutions of higher learning continue to serve as stages for larger political dramas. But when the next upheaval comes around, we would do well to remember that whether teachers and students have the right to say ridiculous or offensive things is perhaps the least important question to ask. The salient questions are whether universities are meaningfully generating or preserving human knowledge and whether their students are capable of receiving it. Of the many thousands of institutions of higher learning in America today, how many could give plausible affirmative answers to these questions? And what could possibly be the argument for retaining those that cannot? This, and not free speech dilemmas, is the real indicator of the crisis in higher education.

David Polansky is a Toronto-based writer and a research fellow with the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. Find him at strangefrequencies.co.

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