Uncommon Common Sense – May 2017

Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

How Committed Are We To Free Speech?


Bill Frayer 2010You may have read about the melee at Middlebury College over the invitation of a controversial speaker to address the student body. When Middlebury professor Allison Stanger invited Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute to campus, they were met by an angry mob of students who physically confronted them and sent Dr. Stanger to the hospital. 

Charles Murray, you may remember, is the author of the 1994 book, The Bell Curve, which many attacked as racist because of the connections it drew between race and intelligence. Dr. Stanger herself disagreed with many of Murray’s ideas but had invited him to campus at the request of several students who wanted to hear him speak. Dr. Stanger, appropriately, thought it would be a good way to demonstrate a “free and fair exchange of views” in her classroom. Obviously, the panel discussion never took place, to the detriment of education at Middlebury College.

These events are not uncommon. I remember receiving an explanatory letter from the president of my alma mater, Brown, in 2013, when a group of Brown students objected to a speech by Raymond Kelly because they believed he was guilty of racial profiling. The students shouted and booed so loudly when Kelly tried to speak, that the event had to be canceled. 

I remember when two students approached me when I was teaching at my community college in Maine and informed me that they could not read the book I had assigned in class. The reason they gave me was that the book presumed that the theory of evolution was correct, and they were born-again Christians and could not read something that was against their religious beliefs.

I could go on. The degree of intolerance on college campuses to contrary ideas is well-documented and unfortunate. As I replied to my students, “You don’t have to agree with everything you read or hear on campus, but you are here to be exposed to new ideas.  Besides, how can you disagree with something you don’t completely understand?” Where is a better place to be exposed to new and challenging ideas than a college campus? No one said education should be comfortable.  Confronting ideas with which you are inclined to disagree is difficult, but necessary. 

I think this controversy on college campuses reflects a larger problem with our society. People, liberal and conservative alike, do not like having to think about arguments with which they disagree. That’s why people seek out news outlets which reflect their own biases. If you only hear opinions you can enthusiastically agree with, you are necessarily uninformed. If you are not exposed to and do not thoroughly understand what your opponents are arguing, you do not really understand all sides of an issue.  You have not really earned the right to have an opinion on the subject.  

Those who have been reading this column for the past ten years will recognize my bias here. One of my major academic interests was teaching critical thinking. In order to think clearly about an issue, you have to have a clear understanding of all its aspects.  You cannot be intellectually complacent. You cannot just hang out with like-minded people and never confront difficult ideas. When you engage in honest dialogue with an intellectual or political opponent, you soon discover that he or she is not a complete idiot. You might even learn something if you come out of your comfort zone. 

Universities should obviously be places for the free and honest exchange of ideas. But so should churches, coffee shops, and workplaces. We need to do something to emerge from our tribalism, before it’s too late.

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