Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected.--Free Inquiry on Campus: A Statement of Principles by over One Hundred Middlebury College Professors [HT WSJ]
During my studies, I was a student rep on the Board of Trustees for finance and administration at Tufts. My main qualification for this position was the fact that I had turned the International Club's annual booze-cruise into a profit center for student government (which had landed me on the student-faculty budget and priorities committee). After college, I briefly tried to turn my experiences into a lucrative gig (helping universities improve learning and PR outcomes by drawing on student participation) with one of the consulting arms of one of the big accounting firms, but it came to naught. That's to say, I was on the decidedly pragmatic wing of student activism destined for Wall Street or (via the law) 'public service.'
One year, near the end of the Spring semester the Tufts Dean of students office (citing security concerns) canceled a visit by a then well-known activist speaker who was going to talk on gays in the military. I assembled a broad coalition of student groups to challenge it (that is, those who cared about free speech, those who cared about gays, and those who cared about the military, and those who liked to protest in the Spring); I got my first taste of how difficult it is to keep people with fundamentally different value commitments talking to each other. (I failed: the conservative groups left the coalition to the glee of the more progressive student groups.) The administration knew it had the upper hand because with the semester ending students dispersed. I am sure my memory is not super reliable on all of this, but I recall that as a fig leaf to student government, the administration set up a committee to re-examine (the already detailed) guidelines for future speaker series. I never expected when I counted the revenue of the Tufts-Wellesley international booze-cruise that I would get such an education in politics. So much for autobiography.
It is a peculiar fact about those that sincerely claim to care about higher education's role in democratic life and then go on to promote it is a means toward civic education, that they persistently ignore the significance of universities as sites of education in a variety of styles of political practices, including activism and protesting (the strength of the do-gooders on campus) as well as including mocking and satire (the strength of the conservatives on campus). Democracy, even our perhaps doomed liberal democracy, is not constituted by reason and civil speech. It is constituted by -- to echo Max Weber who knows something about the nature of higher education -- an ongoing battle of opposing forces and ideals. (The previous sentence is, of course, compatible with spheres of reason and civil speech in a polity.) To expect – I am not making this up – that “the contest of clashing viewpoints” is going to be rupture free is to wish for unperturbed fantasy. (Weber was rather impolite with the eugenicists of his own age [see Kim 2002: 439-440].)
As an aside, it is empirically false that "Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected." [Emphasis added.] Almost certainly, genuine higher learning is best possible under conditions of considerable adversity. (What I have in mind is, for example, the secret seminars in totalitarian and corrupt societies.) True higher education is possible when (recall Seneca) students and teachers are willing to set themselves against the norms of society and start the painful and exhilarating process of examining and shedding the pious and convenient opinion of the marketplace of ideas and goods.* This is generally not a product of serenity.
Without idealizing college campuses (cf. booze cruises above, and my comments about the alcohol and drug fueled club med, party atmosphere on college campuses a few days ago), these are also places where students learn the nuts and bolts of, and leadership qualities associated with, mobilization, coalition building, debating, information gathering, pr-strategies, strategic bargaining, and protesting). Our child-adults learn to question authority and to become authoritative. In so doing they learn about opportunity costs in time, strategic planning, and handle multiple life-projects at once. Sometimes they do so inspired by local faculty or faculty activists, but, more often than not, students are (as the glossy recruitment materials will assert) each other's best teachers in such matters. They learn that some friends should not be trusted in a crowd, and that others show courageous determination. While colleges certainly do not approximate Thoreau's ideal of an experiment in living, they do provide a space for a footpath toward such an experiment.
Astonishingly, the guardians of civil life -- these are my peers -- claim that Students have the right to challenge and to protest non-disruptively the views of their professors and guest speakers. Let's translate this into ordinary language: you can fake protest. I am not against non-disruptive protests--sometimes a point needs to made merely by letting off steam; there is a ritualized form of protest where lovely steps are danced, recognition is demanded and offered, and nothing changes. That has its place in civic life. But protests can legitimately be very disruptive not just in ordinary strikes but also in more thoroughgoing civil disobedience. To claim that this has no place inside the walls of the Academy is to assert that it is not a training ground for civic life in a great democracy. Remarkably, the very same faculty go on to claim that "The purpose of college is not to make faculty or students comfortable in their opinions and prejudices… [but] the primary purpose is…the cultivation of the mind." Yet, to insist on non-disruptive protest is no more than the demand for a comfortable, safe-space zone for faculty and other friends of the status quo! To be sure, I am no enemy of non-disrupted environments—I can also use a sabbatical right now.
But, my god, what kind of faculty complains about students who have not yet resigned themselves to a life of quiet despair? What kind of scholar frames a rowdy student protest as evidence of unwillingness to challenge oneself? What conceited mind responds to excessive, youthful ardor and idealism with the suggestion to learn to play nice?
I am not the kind of faculty member that such activist-idealistic students gravitate to; it’s pretty obvious that I have not signed up for the life of scholar-activism. They instinctively grasp that my tenor does not resonate with their needs, which I often barely comprehend, and their politics, which I tend to dislike. They recognize I do not wish to be their friend. I prefer endless talk over decisive action. I prefer order over romantic adventure.
Of course, disruptive protests have serious consequences. There are no cost-less and risk-free true actions. Disruptive protests generate harsh responses and destabilize natural coalitions. They provoke an endorsement of a sterile order in many. They allow savvy opponents to re-frame the master narrative and win PR wars. They may engender a breakdown of conversation, and even escalate into threatening mobs. Those are real risks. But any serious scholar of social movements also knows that disruptive protests can be a necessary means to create genuine conversations or to express solidary with those whose voices will not be heard; such disruption may lead us down the doomed path of focusing on our divisions rather than our common humanity. If it is my duty as an academic to sign up for the ritualistic and anodyne embrace of the significance of a ‘diversity of opinion’ promoted by those who refuse to face up to the fact that it is precisely such soul-less and thoughtless ritualization of what passes for public opinion these days that has contributed to the existential crisis of our civic and political culture? Is that the price of tenure?
I understand the impulse to oppose “the incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture” with a genteel domain of civility and politeness. But to demand it from others is to behave like the members of the great courts of absolute monarchs where such virtues originate. This is not to promote “incivility and coarseness on” a “college campus;” but what kind of thought imagines that all that is required to address our crisis is to turn the values of Donald Trump upside down.
Simply put: our preachers of epistemic “modesty” and “openness to considering contrary views” are not engaging the arguments and perspectives of Middlebury’s students. (See here for a student document responding to the faculty document. [HT Michael Kremer].) The faculty claim to disdain the intolerant hectoring of students and repay them in the same coin.