Tuesday, April 27, 2021

American Universities Are Fighting for Free Speech, Too


                                                                (Our front yard)

Religions are not the only groups fighting for free speech today. Universities are, too.

See "Speaking Power to Truth: Academic Freedom's Most Determined Adversaries Are Inside Academia," by Princeton Prof. of Politics Keith Whittington. 

Universities, writes Whittington, now face an existential threat. That is, a threat to the very existence of the "university."

Historically, universities exist to lead in the pursuit of truth, and to equip and empower students to think critically about such matters. Contrary viewpoints are not merely tolerated, but seen as essential to cognitive growth and epistemic ability. I remember, as a young philosophy major in the 70s, classes where a skilled professor would lead us in a back-and-forth, give-and-take discussion, allowing different ideas to be expressed, that lasted, in our minds, well beyond the class.

Not any more, at least as some postmoderns would have it. Whittington writes:

"A growing army on college campuses would like to restrict the scope of intellectual debate by subjecting academic inquiry to political litmus tests. Over the 20th century, American universities’ students and faculty pushed to make them havens for heretics, dissenters, iconoclasts, and nonconformists. In the wake of their success, many scholars now demand that campuses adhere to their own orthodoxies."

To postmodern professors, "Speech is not, or at least not merely, a means by which we discover and communicate what is true and false. Speech can also be an instrument of power. Contemptuous of pursuing truth through speech, the demagogue, like the postmodernist himself, is concerned with manipulating the thoughts and feelings of his audience so as to advance his own political goals. If speech is an instrument of power, then perhaps it should be taken away from those who would wield it for disreputable purposes."

But, according to whom? As Alisdair MacIntyre once asked, "Whose Justice? Which Rationality?"

Perhaps, thanks to Whittington and other professors like him, free speech and philosophical liberty will recapture the narrative and, in doing so, become unlikely allies with those of us who see religious freedom slipping away, in the name of who-knows-what?

Whittington has written a brilliant essay. Read it in its entirety. His closing words are,

"American universities have evolved over time, and there is no reason to think that the intellectual openness that has characterized them for the past half-century will characterize them a half-century from now. The buildings might survive, but there is no guarantee that free and open inquiry will."