Published in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald on June 18th, 2017
I still recall with equal measure of fondness and terror my professor’s green pen. I don’t know what it was with my former professors, but most seemed to write their critiques with green ink. Such was the case with one of my seminary professors.
“Jeffrey,” he wrote, “I can’t adequately express to you how much I disagree with the argument you are making as well as your conclusion. Nevertheless, it’s a well-written paper. ‘A.’”
In all honesty, this openness to intellectual diversity occupied the majority of my graduate career. There was a genuine respect for a well thought out idea, and sometimes an affirmation for the slightest bit of intellectual maturation. I experienced that respect as I watched my teachers interact with each other. There was genuine friendship around the lunch table that turned into rhetorical combat in the lecture hall. Coffee and cookies were often served at the reception after the dueling lectures. It took some getting used to, but it was an important exchange to experience.
So it is with a certain amount of unease that I read about the rage generated amongst students and others today when lecturers, presently of a more conservative bent, are invited to college campuses.
Charles Murray, a political scientist with degrees from Harvard and M.I.T. had his presentation shut down at Middlebury College. Murray is a respectable thinker. Losing Ground and Coming Apart are rigorous and well-researched books with conclusions that are intended to be thought-provoking. I learn from him and people like him, even though I don’t always agree with his assessments.
Ann Coulter’s announced appearance at Berkeley generated so much heat that the event was cancelled not too long after it was first announced. Coulter doesn’t pretend to be an academic, nor does she portray herself as being impartial or balanced. She is an informed polemicist and self-described stirrer of the pot. Disinviting her because she is too provocative is wrong for Berkeley and other Universities.
In their most mature form, college campuses should be known as places that facilitate the free exchange of well-thought-out ideas. Ideas are to be judged by their merits. Both good and bad ideas sharpen even better ideas. Ideas matter because thinking matters. Thinking matters because we live in a complicated era that demands our best ideas to begin solving our most complex problems. Problems don’t get serious intellectual attention in echo chambers.
In that regard, college campuses must be places of respect and tolerance—let’s call it intellectual pluralism. Our Republic requires—even demands—places for the testing of ideas and public forums that expose the shortcomings of poor ideas, not safe places that protect students from those ideas.
At its best, the University environment should be intellectually bruising yet breathtakingly civil. An alarming number of colleges and Universities are not fulfilling that part of their responsibility to our country. Thankfully, however, many of them are.
As one author notes, it’s important to remember that today’s college students may be tomorrow’s leaders and employers. Work and engaged citizenship require a certain amount of toughness. Universities that teach students to expect a frictionless environment have poorly prepared their students for their careers and life. That same author also suggests that our failure to respect intellectual pluralism puts many of our own deeply held convictions at risk of a backlash.
That’s a fancy way of saying that pendulums ultimately swing both ways.