Talking the Talk

Have universities lost sight of why they exist?


Free Speech on Campus, by Martin P. Golding, Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, ix + 118 pages, $18.95

When looking for vigorous, freewheeling speech, where do you turn? Certainly not to any conclave of politicians: Although the torrent of words they pour out on the campaign hustings and in legislatures is prodigious, the whole mass of it signifies little more than the plea, "I'd really like you to vote for me." Hierarchical organizations such as churches and corporations aren't friendly to talk that does not directly advance their missions. Like the military, their operative procedure is "don't ask, don't tell." Talk radio would fit the bill if its content weren't so uniformly trashy and unreflective. A few bars remain where undiluted give-and-take is dispensed along with the suds, but too many have gone the way of designer martinis and vapid ambiance. By process of elimination, then, we had better be able to rely on our colleges and universities for speech that really matters, speech that is genuinely free.

Along with expert teaching and cutting-edge research, unconstrained discourse is the university's distinctive reason for being. These three functions should not be thought of as separate, but rather as integrated aspects of the task of creating and disseminating knowledge. In order to attain new insights, investigators must be free to try out bold hypotheses that will then be criticized without fear or favor by their peers. Any holding back in this context stanches the flow of ideas.

Similarly, education—insofar as it goes beyond rote transmission and memorization—involves challenging students' accustomed beliefs and attitudes so as to determine which hold up under pressure and which need to be rethought, improved, or junked. The greatest educator of them all, Socrates, declared that the unexamined life is not worth living. He persisted in questioning what the eminent personages of his society held sacred until they formed a lynch mob to silence him. This Socratic understanding of uninhibited speech as the linchpin of research and education was echoed by Abelard in the Middle Ages and eloquently restated by John Stuart Mill and Cardinal Newman in the 19th century. Today the natural home of this ideal is the university.

That home is, however, under continuing threat of invasion. Many colleges and universities have instituted speech codes spelling out which ideas and words are off-limits. At one, the epithet "Water buffaloes!" was found by the resident oracles to be impermissibly racist. Another banned "inappropriate laughter" and managed to maintain a straight face while doing so. Elsewhere officious administrators have shut down student newspapers and formally disciplined writers and editors alleged to have printed offensive material. Distinguished faculty members have been the object of student protests for classroom remarks denounced as racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise contrary to the prevailing Zeitgeist.

Remarkably, those faculty members are often left to swing in the winds by skittish deans rather than defended. They have been subjected to mandatory "sensitivity" sessions, as have whole classes of entering students. Even before they manage to locate the library, freshmen are taught that speaking their mind can harm their academic prospects.

Unlike previous episodes of repression such as the McCarthyite inquisitions of the 1950s, these are almost always orchestrated by cadres within the university community itself rather than outsiders. Nonetheless, awareness of this endemic intolerance has reached a general public which finds itself mostly bemused by these teapot tempests and doesn't understand why the "sticks and stones" maxim that most of us picked up at our mother's knee has somehow eluded learned Ph.D.s.

A great merit of Martin P. Golding's Free Speech on Campus is that it does not content itself with easy stabs at targets apt for skewering. To be sure, the proponents of speech restrictions have been their own worst P.R. agents. Few of us are able to silence our opponents merely by citing our superior virtue, and this tactic does not gain increased loveliness by being packaged in modish postmodern discourse. Had Golding wished, he could have easily produced a book that scored cheap points by broadly lampooning the sententiousness of the censors. Several authors have previously done just this, and I do not mean to impugn their efforts when I say that what Golding achieves here is more difficult and, ultimately, more significant. This little gem of a book demonstrates that refutations carry more weight when they are constructed on a foundation of taking the opponents' rationales seriously.

Golding, a professor of philosophy and law, knows that intellectual progress requires freedom, but he also knows that civility is required as well. Insofar as people fail to act respectfully toward those with whom they are engaged in discourse, the conversational well is poisoned. Accordingly, unless we are complete fanatics, we reject an anything-goes conception of conversational freedom. If you give a dinner party, you probably will insist that no guest behave boorishly toward the others. Should one do so, he will be summarily scratched off the list for future invitations. We aim to raise our children so that they refrain from verbally abusing their companions. Clubs not only act within their rights to deny admission to those who are likely to be disrespectful toward other members; they also act wisely.

Virtually all social relationships rely on explicit and implicit behavioral checks controlling what may properly be said when and to whom. Universities are not such sturdy organisms that they can dispense with principles of civil accommodation. No doubt many of the well-publicized attempts to dictate such principles have suffered from heavy-handedness and dubious ideological fervor. But if these have failed to achieve the desired end, why should they not be replaced with more judicious attempts to eliminate rancor rather than rejected wholesale?

For Americans the response that first springs to mind is the First Amendment. It protects all speech, not merely inoffensive chitchat. When universities attempt to constrain people's words, they trespass on forbidden constitutional grounds. Golding is thoroughly conversant with the constitutional issues and cites relevant case law addressing the permissibility of speech codes. We learn that, almost without exception, judges have not been kind to would-be campus censors. This is, to be sure, a crucial component of the defense of free speech in academia, but for two reasons Golding does not allow it to dominate his discussion.

First, constitutional strictures pertain only to the state; private institutions are essentially unencumbered with regard to restrictions they may choose to place on the activities of faculty and students. Second, the constitutional argument may suffice to show that state institutions are legally precluded from prohibiting offensive speech, but it does not address whether this is a good or bad thing. Perhaps the liberty to teach, conduct research, and debate in ways that are experienced as hurtful by various campus constituencies is the unfortunate price we are forced to pay for the generally comforting shelter of the First Amendment. This suggests a novel argument for the privatization of higher education: Private universities are more desirable than state institutions because they enjoy a greater liberty to act as censors. Liberals will not fail to detect the irony.

The case for restricting speech is dubious on constitutional grounds but, Golding argues, it also is ill-advised even where legally permissible. He does not trivialize the hurt caused by noisy advocates of racial inferiority, smug Holocaust deniers, self-righteous proclaimers of the sinfulness of homosexuality, and so on. A considerable virtue of Free Speech on Campus is its sensitivity to the concerns of those who get caught in the crossfire of rambunctious rhetoric.

Some would-be speech controllers are, to be sure, power-seeking ideologues pursuing ugly agendas, but Golding does not try to tar them all with that brush. As befits a defender of free speech, he attends carefully and respectfully to his opponents' arguments. They do indeed have a case, Golding allows, but the central conclusion of his book is that it does not suffice to overcome the compelling arguments against censoring, or punishing, speech on campus. The speech controllers are aware that words can wound, but they fail sufficiently to appreciate the special function of the university. It is the institution uniquely situated to hold up alleged verities to close examination, question common wisdom, assertively seek out objections, mention the unmentionable, venture down the road less traveled, and thereby carve out inroads into frontiers of ignorance. This process will make some people uneasy. We are not by nature inclined to enjoy having our accustomed beliefs called into question. Our intellectual equilibrium is thereby upset, our self-esteem punctured. For these reasons it is tempting to call for an armistice in the war of ideas, but that temptation must be resisted if the university is to perform its special function.

That is not to say that canons of civility do not apply within universities. Over the years formal and informal standards have evolved within which speech remains unfettered, but framed so as to indicate that it's the ideas that are under attack, not the people who hold them. An important part of comporting oneself within the university is figuring out how not to give gratuitous offense.

A yet more important achievement, however, is learning how not to take offense. Successful inquiry requires not only a hard head but also thick skin. Like other knacks, maintaining one's intellectual cool under duress is a talent acquired through experience. This can be a painful lesson for freshmen, but its inculcation is one of the most significant returns on their tuition dollars. Unfortunately, when senior academics who ought to be models of dispassionate inquiry instead act as tenured inquisitors rooting out heretical speech, they subvert this central objective of academia. It's no wonder that other university citizens often meekly fall into line.

It ought to now be apparent why standards of decorous speech appropriate for dinner parties do not apply to universities. The former involves taking pleasure in the company of people as they are. Universities exist precisely to make people other than what they are. In social encounters we take care to observe limits, but higher education aims to stretch those limits. Polite conversation conveys information, but university discourse effects transformation. The preceding is not to be taken as an encomium to the purity of the Ivory Tower. In universities at least as much as anywhere else, vast floods of words pour forth to no useful end. Nothing would be lost if they had died aborning. However, internally or externally imposed measures to modulate that flow stifle the creativity sustained by free discourse. They transform universities into institutions that carry the name but lack the essence.

I know of no book that sets out as clearly and concisely as Free Speech on Campus the distinctive ethos of the university. This is not only an essay about speech but also one that practices it in exemplary style. For example, although Golding's foil is universally known as "political correctness," he never employs that term in these pages. Rather than pigeonholing by stereotype, he doggedly and intelligently sticks to the arguments. Howsoever his opponents may choose to travel, Golding consistently takes the high road. But precisely because the case presented here for freedom of speech is so strong, a further puzzle arises: Why is an attribute so critical to the effective functioning of the university today under frenzied assault by so many of its own? Why don't they realize they are fouling their own home? On this matter Golding is less forthcoming.

Some might suggest that those who attempt to suppress speech are bad people in thrall to a bad agenda. While that characterization no doubt holds for some of the speech controllers, many are thoroughly decent people who happen to have placed themselves on the wrong side of this issue. Besides, universities have always housed the good, the bad, and the morally indifferent. What is it that renders these times especially apt for eruptions of censoriousness?

I suspect that this is largely a function of the changed nature of universities. Yes, they still function as citadels for the unrestrained life of the mind. But they have taken on other responsibilities. They serve as vocational schools, dispensers of remediation to those who escaped high school unable to read or calculate well, credentialing agencies, providers of rites of passage for those perched somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, places where governments and corporations can purchase applied research services, and impresarios of athletic and artistic entertainment to surrounding communities.

As higher education has been democratized and expanded to reach new clienteles, these additional functions have grown to rival if not altogether eclipse the traditional understanding of the university as the site of uninhibited inquiry. Note that for many of these new activities, academic freedom is not only inessential but also positively detrimental; it just gets in the way of teaching and learning by rote. No wonder, then, that the populist university is less committed to traditional academic values than was its ancestor. Golding has worked for many years at Duke, an elite university less given to assuming the character of a high school on steroids than some of its less prestigious brethren. Therefore he may have had fewer occasions to observe this phenomenon than those of us who teach at institutions where neither endowments nor SAT scores are gilt-edged.

This cannot be the whole story, however, because it fails to account for the fact that speech is under duress not only at pseudo-universities and near-universities but especially at such bastions of academic excellence as Harvard, Berkeley, and, yes, Duke. Why should they have proven to be even more susceptible than the lesser lights to intrusions by the censors?

The explanation, I believe, has much to do with higher education taking on political and social tasks that compromise academic neutrality. The elite schools have been leaders in this trend. No longer content to improve society through the slow process of nurturing individual minds in the classroom and laboratory, they have turned instead to wholesale political engineering. Are racism and sexism continuing stains on the social fabric despite longstanding efforts to weaken through education the hold of prejudice? Then perhaps the urgency of the situation justifies enforced sensitivity sessions and official sanctions against those who express themselves in ways contrary to what the enlightened have declared to be social imperatives.

Nor is it merely coincidental that as affirmative action has waxed, defense of academic freedom has waned. In the past universities, like other institutions, were insufficiently open to women and people of color. Now they attempt to atone by actively recruiting students and faculty from traditionally under-represented groups. Centers and departments dedicated to Black/Women's/Gay-and-Lesbian Studies are established in which holding correct political attitudes is as important as excellence in scholarship. Corners are cut to achieve desired ends, most especially racially based quotas for admissions and hiring. Although these are rarely publicized or even acknowledged by university administrators, the existence of differential standards and favored viewpoints is hardly a secret on campuses. That knowledge breeds cynicism and resentment among some and insecure defensiveness on the part of others.

As noted previously, universities are not dispensers of comfort and equanimity even when they function as they are meant to do, and taking on these extraneous missions exacerbates tensions. In order to keep the lid on their rapidly boiling pot, administrators decree from above the civility that their own policies have put at risk. Whatever peace is achieved is artificial and temporary. Above the surface or beneath it, the cycle of acrimony and resentment continues. The world hasn't been rendered pure after all, and that corner of it covered in ivy has sacrificed its birthright.

Unfortunately there are none so stubborn as those inspired by idealistic visions. We probably have some time to wait until universities abandon exercises in self-mutilation and instead rededicate themselves to free inquiry. The highest compliment I can give Free Speech on Campus is to say that it may shorten that wait by a little.