What is the state of free speech and free inquiry on our nation’s campuses?
On Friday, November 2, the Jack Miller Center hosted a Summit on the status of free speech and academic inquiry on our nation’s college campuses. The evening featured a keynote address by University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer and an all-star panel, moderated by JMC board member Bill Kristol, featuring Professor Diana Schaub, Professor and JMC board member Wilfred McClay, and public intellectual Peter Berkowitz.
In his keynote address, Robert Zimmer explained that the purpose of higher education is not to make students feel safe. It is rather to prepare them for adulthood, where clear and critical thinking is essential. Academic freedom and training students in critical thinking skills has always been at the heart of the University of Chicago. Since the university issued a statement affirming this commitment in 2015, over fifty other colleges and universities have signed on to the statement. Sadly, this is only a small percentage of the country’s institutions of higher learning.
Agreeing with President Zimmer that the purpose of a university of higher learning is pursuing knowledge and not coddling students, the panel of distinguished scholars delved deeply into the topic of what threatens academic freedom on our campuses today, and what if anything can be done about it. Each panelist spoke about the topic from various and complementary angles.
Using Alexis de Tocqueville as her guide, Diana Schaub explained the biggest problem she saw among her students was that their thinking was highly curtailed by what they viewed as socially acceptable opinion. This perennial problem is today exacerbated by the phenomenon of social media, and also by the many university administrators who urge students to make campuses “safe” spaces. The antidote to group-think? Encountering the great works of philosophy, history, and literature—the “dangerous books.” With such an education, students examine fundamental assumptions, thereby gaining a deeper appreciation for the human condition and the political society in which they live. This is the education that the Jack Miller Center works so hard to support.
JMC board member Wilfred McClay emphasized the important distinction between free speech, which concerns reason, and expression, which is an activity and implies passion and non-reason. The university ought to be a place of rationality and reasonableness. This is a necessary precondition for an institution devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and deeper understanding. Furthermore, McClay relayed his own great success in offering a Great Books education and demanding excellence from his students. College students hunger for challenge and to think in non-cliché ways, and will pursue a demanding education when presented with the opportunity to do so.
Peter Berkowitz channeled John Stuart Mill in explaining the essential connection between free speech and the pursuit of knowledge. Berkowitz also emphasized the interconnectedness of free speech and other personal liberties, drawing attention to the lack of due process on today’s campuses. Berkowitz agreed with the other panelists that a proper liberal arts education was the antidote to the excesses on today’s campuses, and bemoaned the leftist takeover of so many disciplines. The answer, though, is not to demand that more conservatives be hired—such a solution would simply continue to politicize the university, which ought to be a non-political environment. Instead, the answer is to demand that neglected subjects important for a proper education be taught. From the Jack Miller Center’s perspective, this means ensuring colleges offer courses in American founding thought—in the Federalist papers and in Abraham Lincoln, for example.
The attack on free speech on college campuses today is an attack on academic freedom. This problem goes much deeper than speech codes and safe spaces. When students are not offered a proper liberal arts education, they miss out on the deeper understanding about the human condition and political society that great works of history, literature, and philosophy offer. At the Jack Miller Center, we think that the Great Books teach us about our humanity while the works of American founding thought teach us about our political order and ideals. An education in such matters produces informed and capable citizens, who also appreciate the great political experiment that is America. By sponsoring scholars and courses on these all-too-neglected subjects, the JMC contributes to intellectual diversity on America’s college campuses while aiming to improve the education available to America’s students.
Robert Zimmer is the 13th president of the University of Chicago. He previously served as a University of Chicago faculty member and administrator for more than two decades, specializing in mathematics, and served as provost at Brown University for four years. He is the author of more than 80 mathematical research articles and three books. Zimmer is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he serves on multiple boards. In 2017, he was given the Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. He is a frequent commentator on free expression and academic freedom. He received his PhD in mathematics from Harvard University.
Bill Kristol is founder and editor-at-large of The Weekly Standard, host of the popular video series and podcast, Conversations with Bill Kristol, a regular on ABC’s This Week, and appears frequently on other leading political commentary shows. Kristol served as chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle and to Education Secretary William Bennett and has taught at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. Kristol is a member of the Jack Miller Center Board. He holds a PhD in government from Harvard University.
Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In 2017, he received the Bradley Prize. He has taught at Harvard University and George Mason University School of Law. A public intellectual, Berkowitz publishes widely. His books include Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation and Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism. He holds a JD and a PhD in political science from Yale University.
Diana Schaub is a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland and a member of the Hoover Institution’s Jill and Boyd Smith Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society. She previously served on the President’s Council on Bioethics and is a recipient of the Richard M. Weaver Prize for Scholarly Letters. Schaub is author of Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and co-editor, with Amy and Leon Kass, of What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song. She publishes widely and is a contributing editor to The New Atlantis. She received her PhD from the University of Chicago.
Wilfred McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and at The Trinity Forum. The author of multiple books and articles, including The Strange Persistence of Guilt, he is developing a new American history textbook titled Land of Hope. McClay is a member of the Jack Miller Center Board and Academic Council. He has a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University.
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