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The Decline of Debate on College Campuses

The real intellectual crisis in higher education is not over free speech, but the quality of speech.


Back in September, students at the University of California at Berkeley organized a “Free Speech Week,” to be headlined by ex-Breitbart goad Milo Yiannopoulos. The school administration supported the event, for valid reasons: Chancellor Carol Christ declared her wish to “permit speakers … without discrimination in regard to point of view.” But eventually the speakers Yiannopoulos promised—like Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist and Breitbart CEO, and writer Ann Coulter— dropped out of the event or claimed they never agreed to appear in the first place. Meanwhile, Yiannopoulos and his student hosts failed to file the required paperwork to confirm speakers and book campus venues. In the end, the vaunted “Free Speech Week” amounted to a 20-minute Yiannopoulos photo op before a meager crowd of about 100 people, and it cost Berkeley around $800,000. 

In retrospect, one of the most important insights we can take away from “Free Speech Week”—and the spate of campus speaker controversies in 2017—is about the power of pretense. In chasing what Christ called “sharply divergent points of view” at virtually any cost, colleges have backed themselves into a corner, privileging the magnitude of divergence over the substance of it. Thus, vitriolic and ostentatious disagreement has overshadowed good-faith, evidence-based discussions about the very issues over which we disagree.

The real intellectual crisis on campus is not threats to free speech, but threats to the quality of speech. Like much of the media, colleges have capitulated to a Trumpian version of debate that treats lying, demagoguery, bluster, mockery, and bad faith as equally valid approaches to ideological argumentation. This approach subordinates the pursuit of truth to a pernicious “both sides” logic that treats all statements as equal simply because they’re politically divergent, even if they’re radically different in merit. Whereas the national press, no matter how rigorous in its reporting, will be derided by right-wingers as “fake news,” colleges can help correct our national epistemic crisis, putting truth and rigor above shock and provocation. 

Shallow “both sides” thinking—that the only way a college can provide diverse viewpoints is by offering a podium to people more interested in harassment and demagoguery than in exchanging ideas—prevailed on campuses this year. Gavin McInnes, the Vice co-founder and “Proud Boys” founder, was invited to speak at DePaul University and NYU in 2017, and in the latter case the student hosts were careful to clarify that not all of them agree with McInnes’s views, but that inviting such provocateurs is important for preserving free speech on campus, a kind of bitter medicine for left-wing campus culture. The University of Connecticut College Republicans, under the pretense of providing students with “alternative viewpoints and civil discourse,” brought Gateway Pundit correspondent Lucian Wintrich to campus for a speech on why “it’s OK to be white.” Similarly, the Columbia University College Republicans’ 2017 speaker list included master troll Martin Shkreli, currently incarcerated after being convicted of felony securities fraud; Tommy Robinson of the far-right, anti-Islam English Defence League; and “pizzagate” conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich. “If you’re just listening to the same side,” said the president of CUCR, “you’re not gonna learn anything about the other side.”   

But students don’t need to hear from white nationalists, conspiracy theorists, and vindictive provocateurs to get acquainted with conservative ideas. In fact, inviting such speakers has the opposite effect: It conflates conservatism with an extremist fringe, and thus begs to be dismissed by largely liberal student bodies. It’s precisely because students know that white nationalism and conspiracy theories aren’t worth debating at college, with college resources, that they largely reject speakers ahead of time, and are far from attentive listeners when these speakers show up. 

It’s true that there’s also a counterproductive segment of the campus left that will reject conservative speakers, like the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald, who have a serious viewpoint that’s worth hearing. This, too, has stood in the way of good-faith argumentation and the pursuit of truth on campus, particularly because it only reinforces the faulty assumption that we can’t and shouldn’t make distinctions of quality and scholarly rigor in the speakers we invite to campus. When left-wing students and faculty shut down speakers like MacDonald or Alice Goffman at Pomona College, or courses like Humanities 110 at Reed College, they’re catastrophically blurring an important distinction between rejections based on quality and rejections based on ideological difference. Rejecting right-wing trolls would actually improve awareness and discussion across ideological divides on campus, while rejecting serious speakers from across the spectrum only fuels provocation for its own sake.

For this reason, colleges in 2018 must prioritize the pursuit of truth, and the quality and rigor of discussion, over the pursuit of “sharply divergent” views, which tends to flatten the value of all speech. Here’s how we can do that.

The first step is to invite more conservative speakers to campus, and to make it clear that colleges can be places of serious conservative intellectual work. Regardless of their politics, speakers should be interested in nuanced and respectful debate and the mission of teaching and learning. This effort begins with students, who, rather than seeing speaker invitations as an occasion to punish the opposing side, should reach out to one another across the political divide and plan speaking events together before issuing speaker invitations. If student groups seek buy-in from their ideological adversaries on campus, and enter into good-faith discussions and negotiations about which speakers would be truly challenging, engaging, and capable of constructively representing political views across the ideological spectrum, we’d see less drama over campus speakers, fewer disinvitation controversies, and more discussion about issues beyond free speech in the abstract.

Second, colleges should require courses for all students that explicitly focus on argumentation, epistemology, and media literacy. Intelligent students—even intelligent faculty—sometimes struggle to separate argument from opinion, innate bias from attempts at biasing, and the false balance of “both sides” from an effort to fairly represent multiple viewpoints. Data literacy courses—like the “Calling Bullshit” module at the University of Washington—are an excellent place to start, but the traditional literacy skills of close-reading, source-vetting, and archival and historical analysis are also crucial and too often overlooked. (Calling Bullshit has inspired me to offer a “Humanities Lab” course, “Literature Against Bullshit,” this spring at Colby College.)

Third, colleges need to empower faculty to be active in the public sphere, and to protect us and our jobs when we say things that upset the interests of the powerful and the truth-averse. While faculty technically have the prerogative to speak out in public, we’re regularly subjected to campaigns to intimidate us into silence—campaigns that only work when colleges give in and fail to stand behind their faculty. Colleges should create a professional culture that values professors’ willingness to put views and ideas on the line in the public sphere, and refuse to capitulate to intimidation campaigns from outside interests. In practice, this means every college should have a clear protocol in place for protecting its faculty from public attacks, harassment, threats, and intimidation campaigns, rather than reacting to such campaigns after the fact.

We have no reason to expect fewer assaults on the quality and veracity of discourse in 2018. As Politico reported on Tuesday, colleges are even preparing for actual assaults: “After a year marked by campus confrontations between white nationalists and anti-fascist extremists, university administrators are preparing for a combative and potentially violent 2018 by beefing up security and examining the boundaries of their own commitment to free speech.” But we can diffuse much of this “tension between free speech and safety,” as the article describes it, if college administrators, faculty, and students can all agree that ideological diversity is essential to the pursuit of truth—and that we need not degrade speech, or silence it, in the process.