If I were to choose the most important year for the development of modern intellectual freedom, I’d choose 1859, which saw the publication of John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” and Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”
Both works are cornerstones in the edifice of a modern and distinctly Western understanding of science and philosophy.
Individual liberties and scientific worldviews are found well beyond Europe and North America of course, but Mill and Darwin are inheritors and promulgators of traditions of rational inquiry that begin in Greece and find their fullest expression in the West. Neither man was entirely fearless, but both were far ahead of most of their contemporaries.
Sadly, their thinking appears to be rather far ahead of that of many of our contemporaries. This is best illustrated by college students nationwide who have staged protests, sit-ins, boycotts and shouting matches to air grievances whose substance and specificity are so vaporous as to make analysis of their legitimacy impossible.
I have still less idea what college officials who accede to the students’ demands mean to say or do.
Purdue University – let us hope others follow – has signed on to principles issuing from the University of Chicago that declare free speech and inquiry are not to be compromised. No exclusion of speakers, conservative or liberal. No speech codes. Minorities of any kind must be heard.
As Mill wrote in 1859: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
FIRE’s red-light list includes the College of the Holy Cross, Clark University and Worcester State University.
Each year the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) examines hundreds of colleges and universities, looking for speech codes or other policies that restrict what may be said or done on campuses.
FIRE assigns red-light ratings to schools whose policies “clearly and substantially prohibit protected speech,” whether a ban on profanity, the creation of “free speech zones,” or placing their speech codes and policies behind an online wall, far from the inquisitive eyes of media or prospective students.
Their latest survey offers a bit of hope – a continuing decline in the worst offenders against intellectual freedom. The bad news is that a stunning 58.6 percent of schools surveyed still earned a red-light rating, and the illiberality infecting America’s colleges can be found locally, albeit in a minor strain.
FIRE’s red-light list includes the College of the Holy Cross, Clark University and Worcester State University, places cited for having overly broad definitions of harassment or emotional abuse, and/or IT policies that leave too much discretion to administrators.
Now, reasonable people can disagree over FIRE’s standards and ratings, and I have over the years noted a great deal of intellectual curiosity and academic excellence at these schools and others in our region. The tussles over academic freedom on local campuses that I can recall over the last 20 years or so have been relatively minor, and I’m sure every school has handled other potential controversies quietly and sensibly, without media attention.
In any case, an objective assessment of free speech throughout American academia is beyond FIRE’s power – or anyone’s. We have to settle for estimates.
Michael Roth, president of my alma mater, Wesleyan University, gave his view to the Associated Press recently. Roth said that the fact that some do not value free speech above all doesn’t reflect a problem, but simply continuing debate on a diverse campus.
Roth is a bright and eloquent leader, passionate about the liberal arts and sincere in his defense of free speech. I respect his views and have confidence in his leadership.
But when Wesleyan students demand the campus newspaper, The Wesleyan Argus, be defunded for publishing an essay questioning the Black Lives Matter movement, there is a problem.
Staff writer Bryan Stascavage’s essay was mild stuff, in my view. You can judge for yourself here. But however you see it, the response must not be to defund the newspaper or destroy copies.
I would be more concerned if it were not for my experiences at Wesleyan some 30 and more years ago. Then, as now, the Argus was a target for some alleged (and long-forgotten) offense. Then, as now, students sought to destroy copies. The paper and university survived. They will do so again.
Racism and occasional violence do exist on today’s college campuses, but most students today aren’t suffering from either. They are suffering from a lack of education, particularly in the reading department.
I suggest they start with Mill.