Last week, Nathaniel Zelinsky advanced a twofold argument: A university community should never infringe on students’ and faculty’s right to “unbridled free speech,” but it should not hesitate to take “moral and intellectual stances” defending good ideas against the onslaught of bad ones (“The academy’s moral duty,” Oct. 17). To permit expression need not be to condone it. Openness does not mean relativism. The point of free speech isn’t to put all points of view on a par, but to enable truth to win out through to its inherent force and the vigilance of its defenders.
The second part of the thesis is spot on. Truth’s defenders, in the university or anywhere else, must be tireless in their defense of the right and their reasoned opposition to the wrong. But Zelinsky’s premise that the good of “unbridled free speech” is absolute in a university setting fails to convince me. Not only is it too simple; it mistakes the very nature of education.
The first problem with this conception of free expression in an academic setting is that it fails to distinguish academic expression from any other kind of utterance or gesture. And so Zelinsky writes, with reference to a hypothetical Occupy Wall Street student group, “Nor should a student Occupy group be denied space to speak — like Sex Week, DKE and contrarian conservatives, their academic freedoms deserve protection.”
Now, it’s pretty clear (I hope) that Sex Week, the DKE chants of last October and a Buckley Program lecture don’t all land in precisely the same category of campus speech. (Full disclosure: I am a co-founder of Undergraduates for a Better Yale College, whose ongoing petition to end Sex Week at Yale has garnered its share of media notice, support and ridicule.)
The DKE case is the most obvious. It makes no sense to regard the by turns inane and insidious chants of a blindfolded herd of frat pledges as a contribution to the university’s intellectual life, to be weighed and sifted by students after the manner of an academic thesis. I don’t think Zelinsky can possibly be suggesting that academic freedom entails the right to practice blanket sexual harassment. Likewise, while Sex Week’s events admittedly geared toward transmitting information, it is dubious whether a lecture demonstrating the use of various sex toys exhibits specifically academic content.
This raises the higher question of what education is or ought to be, a question on which Zelinsky’s judgment is incomplete. Universities — or, perhaps more precisely, colleges — are more than “the unique curators of knowledge and the incubators of new ideas.” They are institutions to which parents entrust their children during one of the most critical and formative stages of young adulthood. They shape more than the intellect.
For better or worse — but certainly inescapably — colleges forge a culture with distinctive values and moral pressures. The mission statement of Yale College, wherein Yale promises “to develop [students’] intellectual, moral, civic, and creative capacities to the fullest,” acknowledges this fact and accepts the duties it gives rise to.
Foremost among those duties is the responsibility of ensuring that Yale’s culture is morally salutary — that ideas manifestly harmful to students’ moral development either go unpromulgated or, if they are promulgated, are vigorously and convincingly rebutted. Zelinsky approves of the second method, but he rejects the idea that a university administration can judge an idea to be so bad that the safest thing is not to give it a hearing. He can do so, however, only by neglecting the role of the audience.
Strictly speaking, ideas are never judged by their merits. They are judged by an audience, and their reception depends on how well the audience has been trained in the art of judgment. As Bill Buckley observed in God and Man at Yale, “truth can win only where people are temperamentally and intellectually disposed to side with it.”
Part of education is to shape those dispositions so the student will graduate a better judge of truth than she was on the day of her matriculation. In light of this mission, to proffer “unbridled free speech” to students and faculty alike, allowing every viewpoint equal access to the pupil’s unformed mind, is an alarmingly reckless concession.
None of this, of course, should be taken as undermining the value of free expression in society at large and the privileges we enjoy as citizens thanks to the First Amendment. Indeed, the university can be held to a different standard precisely because it is not society but rather serves a specific, educative purpose within society.
Like every form of authority, the authority to regulate speech can be abused. But this no more means that it ought to be done away with than a misguided war means a government ought to lose its power to make war. Anything that can suffer a wrong use can also be put to a right use. To deny that is to hamstring education, intellectual and moral alike.