At campuses across the country, arguments over free speech rage. Advocates for safe spaces, trigger warnings, and speech codes clash with passionate devotees of free expression. Stanford has erupted in protests over the firing of Title IX lawyer Crystal Riggins and debates over whether Milo Yiannopoulos should speak at colleges. Middlebury students are asking their university to bar a right-wing author from a political science debate. Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), even made an appearance a few weeks ago to debunk campus speech codes and trigger warnings.
The issue with all of these debates? Participants have personal stakes in all of them, which warp their perspectives and make impartial judgement impossible.
Students can’t understand why they should tolerate comments they believe threaten their racial, national, or sexual identities. Faculty fear losing their positions over offhand politically incorrect comments. Meanwhile, the average adult American can’t understand why college students are losing their minds over whether their peers should be allowed to speak their minds.
Amidst all the chaos, someone spoke this week to whom we should actually listen: John Etchemendy, Stanford’s longest-serving provost.
With 17 years of service as chief academic and budgetary officer, Etchemendy has a remarkably broad perspective. Under his administration occurred the largest increase in Stanford’s financial aid during the height of the 2008 recession, increases in percentages of female and minority faculty, and a doubling in undergraduate applications. He oversaw the hiring of eighty percent of Stanford’s faculty members.
Just hours after Milo Yiannopoulos’s comments on pedophilia caused universal uproar, he published an article arguing that the greatest threat to universities is from within: an “intellectual intolerance, a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for.” More than budget cuts or Trump’s wall, Etchemendy says that student’s sheer narrow-mindedness threatens the foundation of the liberal arts.
Etchemendy could have retired quietly as the Provost who helped save Band. Instead, he threw caution to the wind, despite knowing that he would create another media storm for himself and be loathed by most of campus. But the “intellectual monoculture” of Stanford has become so terrible, so all-pervading, that he chose to speak out regardless of the consequences.
Over the past decade, higher education has gradually forgotten how to teach students healthy intellectual debate — giving the other side a fair hearing, tolerating opinions with which we may strongly disagree, and acknowledging that people whose views are repugnant might be, at the very least, worth listening to. Students demand to “disinvite speakers and outlaw groups whose views we find offensive” and “[call] for the university itself to take political stands.”
Two decades ago, universities were beacons for the ideals of friendly debate and a marketplace of ideas. Now, universities guard the insidious and suffocating view that free speech is a threat to be batted away.
But those who continually push for “safe spaces” are at odds with the goal of a university education. Becoming educated requires a sense of _epistemic humility _— that we must always keep in mind that we could be wrong and that there’s something to learn from listening to others.
Doing otherwise makes our society polarized and ignorant. People who congregate with those holding similar beliefs tend to form more extreme viewpoints, becoming less able to understand why people disagree with them. And it’s also unrealistic. In the real world, we’ll need to be able to tolerate those who don’t think the same way as we do — the opposite of what college teaches us right now.
Most seriously of all, there’s something terribly wrong with our university if so few are worried that only 35% — thirty five percent! — of students feel it is even safe to hold unpopular opinions.
Do we truly believe that allowing university administrations influenced by the loudest student groups to write censorship rules will aid a critical search for the truth? If you dare to claim that you seek a liberal education, then you should actively seek out ideas that you disagree with. And if your ideas won’t be received without force, then you should probably reevaluate them.
So maybe we should heed the words of a man who’s worked to stellar results with faculty, students, alumni, and the general public for nearly two decades. If you try to silence your opposition via speech codes and trigger warnings, then you are complicit in the deterioration of the university.
We only find truth under conditions of freedom of speech, not freedom from speech.