America’s finest universities—institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford—have been on our soil for centuries. Their respective mottos reflect the dignity of the purposes that these universities have set forth to embody: Veritas, Lux et Veritas, and Die Luft der Freiheit weht: "Truth," "Light and Truth," "The Wind of Freedom Blows." Such mottos certainly bespeak a liberal (free man’s) education in pursuit of the truth.
These mottos, and the commitments expressed therein, contrast sharply with recent events at these and other universities; allusions to truth have been replaced by political correctness and protection from offense. Worse, a frightening reality is emerging: This reversal in priorities is no longer the province solely of ideological administrators. Students are now taking action to protect themselves from offensive ideas and limit free speech.
Yale’s pro-life group recently became the first to be denied membership in the Social Justice Network of Dwight Hall. The Stanford Anscombe Society, which supports traditional marriage, has been vehemently opposed by LGBT students and eventually denied funding and threatened with fees by the student government (although the administration later paid the fees itself). And to top it off, students are initiating the use of “trigger warnings” in all curricula, which warnings alert a reader that what she is about to read or view could contain something that would recall a traumatic experience. This last implementation would expand censorship control—according to a student’s subjective measure of trauma—over everything taught.
Students seem to think that the purpose of education is not the pursuit of participation in knowledge or truth, but rather to create a safe-haven in which they are reassured, in which no one will be offended. Such an outlook makes sense considering that the society into which students enter upon graduation advocates an utterly non-offensive co-existence. If education is to prepare students for living and working in the modern world, then students should imbibe this perspective from the moment they first open their textbooks. Thus, a comfortable academic environment is established at the expense of tossing aside radical ideas and authors (like Plato or Nietzsche).
Unfortunately, this trends hardly reflects the spirit of education to which the aforementioned mottos allude, or the spirit of freedom upon which this country was founded—and which it needs to survive.
In 1817, Thomas Jefferson proposed that three years of common schooling be provided at the expense of the public. This proposition was based on a view that education is necessary to the formation of good future citizens, not just workers. Jefferson explains:
An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens.
The American Association of University Professors echoes this understanding of education:
Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition (1940, emphasis added).
In other words, education is for the good of the country, not just the individual.
If this perspective is the correct one, what is the nature of an education that is indeed beneficial for the common good of the nation? Philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler offers a suggestion:
Here then are three common callings to which all our children are destined: to earn a living in an intelligent and responsible fashion, to function as intelligent and responsible citizens, and to make both of these things serve the purpose of leading intelligent and responsible lives—to enjoy as fully as possible all the goods that make a human life as good as it can be.
A good education contributes to human flourishing. It cultivates individual happiness, and in turn augments the common good composed of those individuals and their good(s). Thus it is fitting that public money was originally allotted to education: It was crucial to the development of good, responsible future citizens.
Returning to Jefferson, one of the best ways to develop such citizens is through learning to govern oneself. The phrase self-government implies one part of a soul directing another; the lower, sub-rational desires in the soul must be guided and controlled by reason. Long ago, Aristotle spoke of this self-governing as virtue, the exercise of which tied directly to the attainment of a happiness proper to men as human beings. Virtue has taken up a different meaning nowadays and is often linked to chivalry and the days of knights in armor. But Aristotle spoke of virtue as living every aspect of one’s life with excellence (the literal translation of virtue), whether that striving is carried out in the context of the family, the duties of a citizen, or even the life of the mind. An education would therefore be learning to discipline oneself at once morally, civically and, intellectually.
Those whose thought situates within the Aristotelian intellectual tradition know that what can be said of a soul is parallel to a truth about the city, or government. Therefore a city, too, must be governed properly and well. And this imperative must be established first in its citizens’ abilities to govern themselves, in securing harmony between reason and their thoughts, feelings, and passions.
Therefore, if an education with the goal of inculcating virtue is important for fostering and increasing the common good, we must establish within the academic community norms (or principles) similar to those that guide political communities, and the government through which the common good is obtained and nurtured. When considering our self-governing democratic republic, we hold that the rights of the minority must be protected against the will of the majority. Just as in our government, we must protect minority views, so too in the academy must the views of the minority be protected, in order to safeguard against “tyranny of the majority,” as Tocqueville would say. Thus, academic freedom must be a priority in institutions. It is critical for the health of academia in America, just as protection of minority rights is critical for the health of our free country.
We should note that obtaining a good education actually requires and in turn facilitates a type of courage, that is, the willingness to seriously consider ideas one has never before encountered or seriously scrutinized. Colleges should not be intellectual safe-places, as such. Education ought not to be padded and bubble-wrapped. It’s dangerous, and that’s good, because we must stretch our minds and expand our horizons in order to see the world through the lenses of the great thinkers, not political correctness. The American Association of University Professors directly linked this conviction to the common good. And those professors were right.
Here one might object that the nature of some ideas deems them unfitting and unworthy to be discussed. Sandra Korn has argued that when professors publish work obviously racist or sexist in nature, such 'scholarship' ought to be purged according to academic justice, while academic freedom is curbed or subjugated. Korn writes, "After all, if we give up our obsessive reliance on the doctrine of academic freedom, we can consider more thoughtfully what is just." In other words, Korn maintains, freedom should be qualified in academic settings for fear of deplorable ideas being introduced and entertained, resulting in promotion of socially and morally unacceptable teaching: ideas that obstruct social justice, rather than enable it.
The flaw in Korn's suggestion lies in the problem of how we would come to an agreement about what constitutes justice, let alone academic justice. It won’t be long before dissenting opinions on the matter arise. Then what? In a community not committed to academic freedom, someone will have to decide which academic opinions are "sufficiently just."
This is not thoughtfully considering justice; this is mandating one understanding of it. Surely such stilted dialectic would contradict the original aim of "academic justice." No matter the alternative proposed, robust academic freedom is still a necessity in education.
What then, do we do when hateful ideas are introduced into public discourse?
The recent uproar about a Black Mass being demonstrated at Harvard comes to mind. One author wrote that Harvard administrators were right not to ban the Black Mass, even though it was a grave (and arguably hateful) demonstration against the Catholic Church. Instead of banning it, thousands engaged each other in public discourse and eventually, the group sponsoring the event cancelled it for lack of venue availabilities.
That’s academic freedom at its finest: having the room to wrestle with difficult questions, using public discussion and forums, not the mandate of one person or institution, to resist unjust actions and beliefs. Isn't that what we—citizens of a free, self-governing nation—should really want?