Campus Free Speech

Video of Cato Institute Book Forum on Keith Whittington's "Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech"

The Forum features a talk by the author, with commentary by me.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The Cato Institute has posted the video of its recent book forum on Princeton political scientist Keith Whittington's excellent new book Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech. The event includes a presentation by the author, commentary by me, and questions from the audience (both on-site and online).

Since I have few disagreements with Whittington, much of my commentary amplifies and extends his argument. In addition, I discuss the special difficulties involved in applying free speech principles to faculty hiring (where I do have some modest differences with Whittington), and steps that both university officials and conservative and libertarian critics of attacks on free speech on campus, can do to strengthen protection for this important value.

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  1. Of course someone looking for diverse viewpoints doesn’t have to go to college – if college deserves to be distinct from the real world, it’s because liberal arts education should *require* students to debate hot-button issues.

    I’m not speaking of purely vocational courses, but of students who (whether residing on campus or studying online after work) are seeking some kind of liberal-arts degree.

    Here students should not simply have the *option* of taking in some talks by dissenting outside speakers – they should be *required* to take part in debates over key issues of public concern. This should either be student-on-student debate, or – if one side is so out there that students may not want to be associated with it – debates with outside speakers. So if the topic under discussion is founding a white ethno-state, Robert Spencer should be invited to make the racist case, and to rebut him only the best students should be recruited, not indignant snowflakes with minimal intelligence (Spencer would mop the floor with the latter).

    Students should get to the point where they are intellectually prepared to defend their positions against the best that the other side can hurl at them.

    Physical disruption of speeches should be treated as a subset of campus crime.

    1. How could conservative-controlled campuses comply with your proposal? Do you expect them to discard the strident, everyday censorship (speech codes, conduct codes, loyalty oaths, suppression of academic freedom, viewpoint-based discrimination, rejection of science, suppression of dissent) that has been the signature of those schools for decades and centuries?

      1. Really? Why haven’t I heard about this before?

  2. No question . . . free speech should be protected, but doubt that speeches (like posting here) changes anybody’s mind about much. The time would better spent on STEM, or non-partisan history lectures.

    1. There is far too much emphasis on STEM especially at this level of education. Student need to learn how to write well. As an editor, I see far too much semi-literate text.

      Of course learning to think logically and expressing that logic rather than just emoting would also be useful. Most people are not called on to write creative fiction or poetry. Their task is much different.

      1. The problem is that college is expensive, both directly and in terms of deferred earnings.

        Outside of STEM degrees (I include medical here) a law degree is the only area where the degree will increase your lifetime earnings potential by enough to cover the cost (even with government subsidies).

        Outside of STEM a college degree is a waste of money. If you can afford to waste that much money and not miss it, great. However, people who can’t afford it are being pushed into getting college degrees.

        1. I should point out, I do recognize that not all STEM majors have the income potential needed to cover the cost of getting the degree.

  3. Why direct attention solely toward “conservative and libertarian critics of attacks on free speech on campus?”

    Is this ostensibly libertarian(ish) forum a safe space for censorship (speech codes, conduct codes, loyalty oaths, suppression of academic freedom, rejection of science to flatter nonsense) so long as that censorship is conducted by conservatives?

    1. Why direct attention solely toward “conservative and libertarian critics of attacks on free speech on campus?”

      It’s Eugene.

      1. Uh, no, it isn’t.

      2. Uh, no, it isn’t.

        1. Sorry. It’s Ilya.

          Still a poor choice of words, IMO.

        2. Don’t confuse them with facts.

    2. Perhaps that is where the most frequent attacks come from at present. Stop living in the past.

      1. The most strident censors on American campuses are conservatives. Nearly all conservative-controlled campuses area censorship-shackled, low-quality institutions marked by speech codes, loyalty oaths, conduct codes, suppression of academic freedom, the teaching of nonsense, viewpoint-based discrimination in everything from hiring to curriculum and admissions to academic administration; and/or rejection of science to flatter nonsense.

        You should know this.

    3. Clearly you didn’t listen to the video. Neither speaker directed criticism solely towards attacks on free speech by liberals.

      1. Not the point. The OP talks about,

        “steps that both university officials and conservative and libertarian critics of attacks on free speech on campus, can do to strengthen protection for this important value.” (my bolding).

        Are there no liberal critics of these attacks? I doubt it.

        1. He said “university of officials”. jk

          1. Man I can’t even get my joke right. Fuck.

  4. Saw this somewhere: “An engineering or computer science degree from a bottom tier school has more income potential than most identity group degrees from a top tier school.”

    1. STEM supremacy is dumb as anything.

      Living only to maximize your income potential sounds awesome.

      1. So does having an identity group degree and not having an ability to secure meaningful employment.

      2. I am the author of the comment mentioned above.

        I will agree with you that living only to maximize your income potential is less than ideal.

        However taking on tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for something with no economic utility is epically stupid.

        A liberal arts education is a great idea, if you can afford it. It’s orders of magnitude dumber than you think the STEM supremacy is if you can’t.

        There are a few non-stem degrees that can make economic sense, law for example. However the vast majority of non-STEM degrees have no economic value, and pursuing such a degree when you can’t afford it without going into debt is simply insane.

        1. Ain’t nothing wrong with spending your time studying a subgroup if that’s you’re bliss. Especially given how similar various majors within a liberal arts degree are.

          Whether it’s wise or not depends on your background and goals and all sorts of stuff.

          Point is, as a physics major, I find the ‘STEM is just better’ crowd more tribal than having any sort of plan.

          Think of your end-goal. Sparta but with engineering? Not even Sparta was Sparta.
          ================
          There is economic utility, just not as much as a STEM degree.
          Economic sense is a threshold question, and it’s all context, which is why IMO these broad generalizations about dumb students taking unwise degrees is just ‘you damn kids’ redressed.

          1. “Ain’t nothing wrong with spending your time studying a subgroup if that’s you’re bliss.”

            There can be if you are asking other people to pay for your studies.

            “I find the ‘STEM is just better’ crowd more tribal than having any sort of plan.”

            I actually agree. While STEM degrees in general tend to have more income potential/economic value than non STEM degrees, this is not universally true, particularly when you get in to more theoretical physics.

            Again, you have to look at the context of the comment that is being criticized here. I made that comment in response to a claim that degrees from high tier schools had more income potential/economic value than degrees from low tier schools.

            I was not and am not making the sort of broad claim that you are complaining about.

            1. I also limited that comment to specific areas and not STEM generally.

          2. “Think of your end-goal.”

            I am thinking of my end-goal.

            “Sparta but with engineering?”

            Not even close.

      3. “STEM supremacy is dumb as anything.

        Living only to maximize your income potential sounds awesome.”

        Spending a few years and tens of thousands of dollars analyzing Shakespeare, or studying Art History or Philosophy is a terrible way to prepare for a career outside of teaching those subjects. It’s much better to study Business or Engineering, the type of skills people pay for.

        Subjects like these might be great as part of a general education, and a degree in these subject might be a great way to spend a few years and a lot of money if you’re not looking to prepare for a career, but Humanities departments spend a lot of money to convince people that, say, studying poetry is a great way to prepare for a career, when it simply is not.

        1. You don’t just study your major, not by a long shot.

          And who says studying poetry is good for your career?

          1. “You don’t just study your major, not by a long shot.

            And who says studying poetry is good for your career?”

            Of course not. But you spend a good chunk of your time studying your major. That’s why you call it your major.

            Several commenters, echoing stuff that humanities departments have to tell themselves, claim that liberal arts people are “trained to think” in ways that elude non-liberal arts majors. In fact, many humanities professors believe that they have special insights that elude people who study business majors.

            But this is just wrong. Unsurprisingly, poetry majors understand poetry, and business majors understand business. I’m not sure why people have so much trouble with this.

            1. I think part of where we differ is in how essentially your major defines you. I think it’s actually pretty marginal.
              Though that’s not from personal experience, since I went to an engineering school where humanities were not emphasized. But the history majors I talk to sound a lot like the psychology majors sound a lot like the American studies majors etc.
              Political science and English majors are the only ones I can spot.
              ==================
              So it’s not that poetry is good for your career – it’s that a liberal arts education adds value to you as an employee. Not more value than a STEM education, but different value. I think I understand now.
              I don’t think that’s marketing – liberal arts is the default based more on history than marketing.

    2. It may be true, but teaching at an engineering university, I may have a distorted view.

    3. The comment you quoted was made in reply to a claim that a degree from a top tier school has more economic value than a degree from a bottom tier school.

      I agreed that that would be true as long as the comparison was limited to a specific major. Different majors have inherently different economic values. So a degree in a high value major from a low value school would very likely be worth more than a low value major from a high value school on strictly economic terms.

      1. What kind of degree gives you income potential is more a matter of fashion than of utility. For the recent past, folks with English and history degrees have been out of fashion in the human resources office. Previously, they were in heavy demand.

        Never mind that liberal arts provides better intellectual training to be a senior manger than STEM does (mostly). The human resources office doesn’t worry anymore about senior mangers. Their job is to plug pigeons into pigeon holes. And then to boot the pigeons out at about age 40. (See this week’s news on IBM.) For a chance to play pigeon-in/pigeon-out, STEM training is ideal.

        If you’re bright, but not too bright, and you want a reliable, long-lasting career, go into human resources management. Or maybe not. That’s been in fashion since the 1970s, powered to a surprising degree by identity politics, which made it legally dangerous to let an operating manager pick his own staff.

        How long can a fashion last? If the right wingers who love STEM so much ever get their way about meritocracy, corporations may again discover the advantages of identifying and hiring people trained to think?not a task you want to entrust to Human Resources?nor to STEM types either.

        1. “What kind of degree gives you income potential is more a matter of fashion than of utility.”

          To some degree by not completely. Applied science and technology degrees such as engineering and computer science have a high degree of utility that is not dependent of fashion and isn’t going to go away any time soon.

          “Never mind that liberal arts provides better intellectual training to be a senior manger than STEM does (mostly).”

          And generally companies don’t want STEM degrees in senior management, they want MBAs, which I would personally not consider a STEM degree.

          Will you please acknowledge that my original comment from the other thread that is being criticized here was not about STEM generally, I specifically called out engineering and computer science?

        2. “The human resources office doesn’t worry anymore about senior mangers. Their job is to plug pigeons into pigeon holes. And then to boot the pigeons out at about age 40.”

          While companies may see the individual people in certain fields (computer science, engineering) as interchangeable cogs, their need for those skill sets is in no way driven by fashion.

        3. “What kind of degree gives you income potential is more a matter of fashion than of utility.”

          The income potential of a given degree is driven by far more than fashion, while fashion may have some impact, I will disagree that it’s a major impact in any direct sense. The true driver is supply and demand.

          There is very much a significant degree of utility driven demand for applied science and technology degrees like engineering and computer science. Theoretical physics and mathematics, not so much.

          However, if any degree area gets over saturated, that will drive down income potential in that degree. The area getting hit hardest by this effect right now, is not STEM, but law.

          To the extent that companies can play pigeon-in / pigeon-out, in applied science and technology fields, that is driven by over supply of applicants.

          Even in areas with the highest utility driven demand will shift over time as much as fashion driven demand changes.

          People seeking college degrees need to evaluate these things with a realistic forward looking perspective.

          Certain majors will never have economic value, no matter how fashion changes because they have no utility. Such majors can be found in both STEM and liberal arts areas.

        4. “identifying and hiring people trained to think?not a task you want to entrust … to STEM types either.”

          Another assertion based on minimal real world knowledge. That simple to be typical of this commenter.

          I have seen the opposite in several highly quality organizations over the past 40 years.

          1. Don, forgive me. My estimate of STEM graduates’ critical capabilities might have been influenced by hearing them chorus scorn for liberal arts on this website. They probably don’t mean it. Or if they do, maybe elsewhere you can find STEM-types who aren’t so foolish.

            As for “minimal real world knowledge,” what kind of education prepares a person to make insulting (also, garbled) generalizations about someone whose real-world experience he can’t even guess?

          2. while fashion may have some impact, I will disagree that it’s a major impact in any direct sense. The true driver is supply and demand.

            And it is fashion which, to an extent, drives demand. In addition, let’s note that if lots of students go into STEM fields then this very same supply/demand mechanism will drive their earnings down relative to other degrees.

          3. “Another assertion based on minimal real world knowledge. That simple to be typical of this commenter.”

            Yup. I wonder how people think liberal arts faculty learn to “think” to a point where they can train people to out-think people who focus on solving real-world problems. Most of them lack any exposure or experience in how things actually get done.

            1. TP, few people know how things actually get done better than the best historians. Edmund Morgan is the best source available on how things got done in America up through the founding era. A journalism professor trains students to see how things get done today. Philosopher Karl Popper was a person who offered insight into how things actually get done. How about political philosopher Michael Oakeshott? How about Thomas Hobbes?

              Not saying this applies to you generally, but this particular comment illustrates a weakness of too-narrow stem education (the usual kind)?tacit assumption that “real world problems” are limited to material problems, considered in the abstract. There is a shortage of convincing evidence that STEM education is especially insightful, even on the material side. Don’t you suppose STEM advocates may appropriate more credit than they earn? Would you venture across a bridge built exclusively by STEM-trained engineers, without employment of practiced steel fabricators? I would far prefer to chance crossing one the fabricators built without the engineers.

              But I’m cheating?comparing the best on the non-STEM side?and on the purely practical side too?to ordinary examples from STEM. In that, I’m only doing what STEM advocates on these threads do from the opposite perspective. Difference is, their comments, at least, suggest they lack training to help them recognize what they do. Confess that it’s complicated, and we’re in agreement.

              1. “but this particular comment illustrates a weakness of too-narrow stem education (the usual kind)”

                Of course, I certainly wouldn’t have enough information to make the comments that I do if I had a narrow STEM education. I have a liberal arts degree (and the associated post-college burger-flipping experience), a business degree, and a STEM job.

                My liberal arts degree was loads of fun, but it turned out that learning about technology and business gave me the skills to do things that people want to pay me to do.

            2. I wonder how people think liberal arts faculty learn to “think” to a point where they can train people to out-think people who focus on solving real-world problems. Most of them lack any exposure or experience in how things actually get done.

              This contempt and possibly even bitterness for the idea of emotional, social, or reflective skills seems way out of proportion.

              I see this a lot – there’s this pattern on the right of weaving this bitter tapestry about liberal arts out of either incomplete one-sided anecdotes, or blowing some anecdote of their own out of proportion.

              1. “This contempt and possibly even bitterness…”

                No contempt or bitterness.

                It’s great to read philosophy, poetry, etc. And it’s good that we teach them. But unless you want to teach, say, poetry as a career, majoring in poetry is unlikely to give you the types of insights that you need to plan a project or build a bridge. Studying business and technology gives you those insights. And people in English departments should stop claiming that studying poetry is a good way to prepare for a career outside of teaching poetry.

                1. TwelveInch, which of the besetting problems this nation now faces will be redressed by STEM-related project planning or bridge building, as much as those may contribute to infrastructure repair?

                  I would far prefer national leaders educated in the political philosophy of Michael Oakeshott than in any STEM technology whatever.

                  Go ahead, continue perversely to insist on collapsing liberal arts into nothing but poetry. Study of Shakespeare, Donne, Marvel, Yeats, Dickinson, Frost, and a few others would collectively deliver a better adjusted frame of mind for governing and policy making than any STEM-related education I can think of?including even climatology. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the greatest project managers in this nation’s history, famously took inner direction from the Bhagavad Gita. Had policy makers, or even just a few of his fellow physicists, been educated to understand what he meant by his most famous quote from that work, the cold war might have been avoided.

                  With poetry there is at least something of human frailty, pride, happenstance, and mortality. Where do you see those vulnerable aspects of humanity emphasized in coding 101?by which I mean emphasized in a way to serve as a caution and guide for a policymaker, and not a code debugger?

                  1. “I would far prefer national leaders educated in the political philosophy of Michael Oakeshott than in any STEM technology whatever.”

                    Personally I would actually agree with this, but any suggestion that we can afford to give everyone a college level liberal arts education is simply nonsense.

                    Such an education is great if you can afford it. Going into debut to pursue such an education is insane.

                2. To appreciate anew what beyond poetry can be done with poetry, re-read this favorite of EV. Never mind that he reads it as unironic praise for 100-year-old STEM. It’s larger meaning contains a broad critique of the English class system. Here it is:

                  https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Sons_of_Martha

                  1. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with reading poetry, or philosophy. But spending years and 10’s of thousands of dollars devoted reading Kipling is a terribly inefficient way to learn how to think in ways that will allow you to do stuff that people will pay you to do.

                    Many liberal arts faculty members don’t understand this. They have spent their entire careers in universities lecturing to folks in their teens and early twenties, and believe that their academic work has endowed them with critical thinking skills that enable them to understand how society operates in ways that other don’t. But in reality they understand very little outside the academy.

                    Studying poetry is a great way to learn about poetry. But it is a terrible way to learn about the English class system.

                    1. That just renews my objection to reducing liberal arts to nothing but poetry. If Kipling’s inherently conservative objections to class abuses in England don’t suit you as broad enough, or deep enough, or convincing enough, read historians E.P. Thompson or Eric Hobsbawm, or whoever suits you better. Those are liberal arts writers too. But don’t try to get your class-system insights out of an Introduction to Project Management class.

                      I’m with Sarcastr0 on this. I don’t see what animus towards liberal arts is meant accomplish, other than dumbing down as many folks as possible. Doesn’t seem wise to me. I partly suspect the animus is founded in ideology?a sense among right wingers that liberal arts faculty are politically liberal adversaries whose teaching and subject matter ought to be opposed for no other reason than that?although I concede that you seem more flexible about it than many.

                    2. I’m also concerned about, “think in ways that will allow you to do stuff that people will pay you to do.” I read that as an expression of hostility to hiring liberal arts graduates. Which, I suggest, has indeed been (inexplicably) the order of the day in corporate America. If the notion is that it’s more efficient just to hire glorified trade school skills right out of colleges, then maybe that’s what ought to be corrected. Stop turning colleges into trade schools.

                      Encourage corporate consumers of readily-learned practical skills like coding to shoulder the costs of teaching them?to candidates who have already shown broader thinking skills than learning coding prepares you to do. What happens now strikes me as a short route to a less competitive economy, and a more stagnant one?an economy predicated increasingly on foreign capital and foreign labor to empower lower-value technical work. That will be increasingly doable anywhere in the world?and would thus turn what’s left of American economic activity into exportable low-wage labor.

                      No matter what this morning’s hiring fashions suggest, except at the very highest levels of research, there is a diminishing future in STEM-related employment for Americans. For that reason, hostility to non-STEM alternatives seems foolish indeed.

                    3. Many liberal arts faculty members don’t understand this. They have spent their entire careers in universities lecturing to folks in their teens and early twenties, and believe that their academic work has endowed them with critical thinking skills that enable them to understand how society operates in ways that other don’t. But in reality they understand very little outside the academy.

                      What are you talking about? Did you ever meet a good historian who understood, “very little outside the academy?” Or who had poor critical thinking skills? Come to think of it, did you ever meet a good historian at all?

  5. Yes universities should support “speak freely” but they will not regardless of what Keith Whittington says in his new book Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech. To support “speak freely” would mean to set aside their political agenda that most of the professors and universities have. But keep up the good work and maybe someday we can make the term “liberal education” mean what it has been in the past, study of many fields of education so that the education will be well and broad based.

  6. This is a comment about a blog about a video about commentary about a presentation about a book about speech.

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