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Education, Free Speech and Benedictine Values

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Education in general and higher education in particular are based on the belief in academic freedom.  Students, faculty and researchers must be free to ask questions and pursue inquiries where their curiosities and imaginations take them.  They must be able to question the received wisdom and current understandings within their disciplines and to create new disciplines.  Without this freedom, the sun would still revolve around the Earth, Darwin would be unknown, philosophy might well be purely Aristotelian and whole disciplines, like Gender Studies, would not exist.

New knowledge and understandings do not come without pain.  Sacred cows are gored, strongly-held beliefs are challenged and whole world views are upended.  If colleges and universities do their jobs well, every student will experience some of this intellectual vertigo.  They will feel unsettled as their beliefs are stretched, tested, challenged and sometimes found wanting.  Education should be uncomfortable or it does not deserve the name.

But at the same time academic freedom is causing discomfort, it is moving forward the boundaries of human knowledge within disciplines and for societies, and it is preparing students for a lifetime of learning in an ever-changing world.

The game is worth the candle.

Freedom of speech is the other side of the academic freedom coin.  The ability to express ideas, thoughts and opinions obviously extends to settings well beyond the academy and our Founding Fathers felt the exercise of free speech to be important enough to put it into the First Amendment of the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The ability to bring new or unpopular ideas into the national conversation without fear of government intervention (or worse) has had a salutary effect on political and policy discourse throughout our history.  Free speech played an important role in ending slavery, bringing about the revolution in women’s rights, civil rights and gay rights, among other policy changes that have moved us toward a more just society.

Classroom chairsYet free speech brings even more challenges in its exercise than academic freedom.  The protocols of the academy, including but not limited to the scientific method, provide some generally accepted guidelines for the exercise of academic freedom.

The exercise of free speech is much less circumscribed.  The Supreme Court has, appropriately, been very hesitant to limit the exercise of free speech.  As soon as one starts drawing lines, the philosophy and purpose of free speech start to erode.  Who gets to draw the lines?  Those in power?  How does that affect the functioning of the marketplace of ideas?  How do the politically or socially marginalized get to influence society’s political and social choices?

But with few legal limitations on speech, those expressing their views can be extreme, personal and even hateful.  (There is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment.)  One simply has to look at political discourse today to see these extremes in print and electronic media.  Social media has exacerbated these issues as anyone with an internet connection can join the public conversation, often with the cover of anonymity.

Yet again, many (not all, surely) would argue the benefits of constitutionally protected free speech outweigh the costs.  As Voltaire may or may not have said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

So, what are we at educational institutions to make of all this as we pursue our missions? Interestingly, the responses are potentially different at public and private institutions.  What the First Amendment provides is protection from government imposed restrictions on speech: Congress shall make no law…  So the University of Minnesota, as a public institution is bound by the First Amendment.  As the ACLU website notes:

Many universities, under pressure to respond to the concerns of those who are the objects of hate, have adopted codes or policies prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

That’s the wrong response, well-meaning or not. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution.

The legal constraints that pertain to free speech for private institutions like Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict are less binding, as we are not publicly funded.  We have the ability to restrict the speech of members of our private community, but the ACLU is very clear on its recommendation for private institutions:

The ACLU believes that all campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society.

ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser stated, in a speech at the City College of New York: “There is no clash between the constitutional right of free speech and equality. Both are crucial to society. Universities ought to stop restricting speech and start teaching.”

This advice can be hard for some to accept.  It requires one to listen to not only speech we disagree with but speech that might be hateful and hurtful.  It can require Holocaust survivors to listen to speech from neo-Nazis, as occurred in a famous 1979 case in Skokie, Illinois, but as the ACLU argues:

Free speech rights are indivisible. Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice.

As private institutions, Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict have options that can balance free speech with civility in ways that other private and public institutions may not.  We have our 1500-year-old Benedictine Catholic tradition to turn to for guidance.  We can both strongly support academic freedom and its public counterpart, freedom of speech, by encouraging our community to exercise speech rights in ways that are consistent with our Benedictine values.

Even if the First Amendment allows for extremes in the exercise of this constitutionally protected right, our Benedictine values remind us that respect for individuals, moderation and our commitments to the community call us to the harder work of civil and respectful free speech.

I’d suggest that there are three commitments we might make to each other in this Benedictine educational community as we strive to balance the important goals of encouraging the open and vigorous exchange of ideas at the same time we seek to build a respectful, civil community:

  1. Personal reflection: Ideally, we would all commit to thinking through our own opinions and beliefs thoroughly and carefully.  We wouldn’t espouse unexamined ideas, or simply repeat what we hear from others or speak when we are not capable of being coherent.  We should know what we believe and be able to articulate why we believe it.  This goal is consistent with living an examined life, which Socrates so eloquently encouraged.
  2. Respect your audience: To be persuasive in making any argument, we need to understand our audience.  Do they want to hear what we have to say?  How will they hear what we are saying?  Might they misinterpret our meaning?  How will their perspective or life experiences affect what they hear us saying?  How can we clearly make our points in the politest and most civil fashion?
  3. “Listen with the ear of your heart” (Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict): For true engagement with others, we must be just as willing to listen as we are to speak.  We must commit to working hard to understand where other are coming from and to understand why they have a different perspective than we do.  Finally, we must listen with generosity and be willing to accept that good and thoughtful people might reasonably disagree on matters of importance.

We are communities made up of imperfect individuals, sinners not angels.  But we can be committed to each other and to our communities and can strive to make them better places to live and learn—even as we know and want that learning to be uncomfortable at times.

While I am not certain that Bennies and Johnnies can change the way the rest of the world engages in discourse, I do believe our Benedictine values can guide us toward deep and meaningful interactions where we respectfully learn from each other and are better prepared to interact in the world.  If we can achieve this on our campuses, Bennies and Johnnies might serve as models of civil discourse that the world seems to so desperately need.

By |February 17th, 2017|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

Snowflakes and Johnnies

Photo: Tommy O'Laughlin '13

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

In recent months the media has been filled with stories about campus controversies around intellectual engagement and free speech.  From Yale to Missouri to Michigan to Wesleyan to Williams students and faculty have been challenged by the free exchange of ideas and the inevitable tensions that arise when opinions differ.  Some students have insisted that they be protected from views they find offensive and these demands have led for calls to limit free speech on campuses.  (See here and here)  These new sensibilities on campus have led to questions about the mettle of millennials, with some observers calling  these protestors snowflakes as a reflection of their apparently delicate constitutions.

These controversies obviously encourage those in higher education to reflect on our mission in educating students and also reminded me of a related conversation I had several years ago about the character of Johnnies.

I was at a dinner party and was introduced to a lawyer from abroad who was currently working in the Twin Cities.  As we talked, I told him I had gone to school at Saint John’s.  I assumed that I would need to explain a bit more about Saint John’s since he was not from the area and had been living here only a short time, but that was not the case.  He was very excited to learn I was a Johnnie and excitedly told me about two Johnnie brothers he had met when he was volunteering abroad after graduating university.  He was volunteering for a Catholic organization in Central America, and there were young people from all over the world.  But, without a doubt, the volunteer that had the biggest impact on him was a Saint John’s University graduate.  He spoke with a sense of awe, even years later, about the intellectual fearlessness he observed in this young man.  “He would ask the priests and the rest of us all kinds of questions about theology and social justice.  He was not afraid to ask anything, but he was always polite and thoughtful.  He did not approach these engagements with aggression or anger or righteous but with genuine curiosity and always with a good sense of humor.  What was also striking was that his brother (also a Johnnie) came to visit a couple times and he was exactly the same way.  They both seemed deeply interested in what others thought and had a strong desire to learn from them.”

This lawyer had been educated at one of the finest schools in his home country, a large university that has a world-class reputation, yet he was both charmed by and admiring of the way these two Johnnies approached the world.  He has apparently not met too many people like these brothers.

As I listened to the story, I thought back to my own time at Saint John’s and recalled the hours sitting in a faculty resident’s room listening to my hall mates talk.  A lot was fluff and occasionally the conversations sophomoric, but there was also plenty of room for serious issues and quiet encouragement to try out ideas.  The monks who are generous enough to live with undergraduates know how balance the immaturity of youth with young people’s genuine desire to explore meaning.  Faculty residents also make it clear they are there to mentor and guide without proselytizing or pushing their own views. I had a pretty good sense of how and where those two Johnnie brothers had developed their intellectual sensibilities and finely honed emotional intelligence.

A few years later, I happened to get to meet these two brothers.  They were exactly as described by their lawyer friend, but at the same time, they were also pretty typical Johnnies.

Photo: Tommy O'Laughlin '13

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

These campus controversies and the way students and faculty respond to them have a significant impact on the ethos on campuses, but it is relatively rare that such issues make it all the way to the White House.  In this case, however, President Obama felt the need to comment on these issues, given the centrality of free speech and the exchange of idea in our political life.  He said:

The purpose of college is not just to transmit skills. It’s also to widen your horizons; to make you a better citizen; to help you to evaluate information,
to help you make your way through the world; to help you be more creative.  The way to do that is to create a space where a lot of ideas are presented
and collide — where people are having arguments and people are testing each other’s theories, and over time people learn from each other because
they’re getting out of their own narrow point of view and having a broader point of view.

Given these views and setting politics aside, I suspect the President would find Johnnies to be good intellectual company, as he apparently does in his chief of staff.

And I am delighted that in their own thoughtful way, these two Johnnie brothers, like so many other alumni, are modeling the kind of character and intellectual fearlessness that we continue to foster through our Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts experience.

By |March 9th, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

As is Often the Case: Campus Politics are More Complicated Than They Look

Image: Lam Thuy Vo via Flickr

Image: Lam Thuy Vo via Flickr

I was recently talking to an alum who wondered about the atmosphere on the Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s campuses, given all the recent news about unrest at schools around the country.  He wondered whether millennials and current faculty are really so different than they were when he went to school several decades ago.

The last couple months have been filled with protests and unrest on college campuses across the country.  A number of issues have been raised but concerns have focused on race, identity and creating safe and comfortable environments on campus.  A flavor of the protests can be gleaned from the students’ concerns.  Cato Institute Scholar Walter Olson gathered various student demands from across the country which include, in the college paper of Guilford College, “We suggest that every week a faculty member come forward & publicly admit their participation in racism…” and some Wesleyan University  students want “An anonymous student reporting system for cases of bias, including microaggressions, perpetrated by faculty and staff.”

The tone of the protests, with the criticism of those with other perspectives and the occasional confrontation with the media, have led to important questions about the role of free expression and First Amendment protections on college campuses. Some critics have even likened the mood to a much darker era in 20th century German history:

We’ve seen at several colleges — most explicitly at Amherst — the call to curtail free speech and academic freedom in favor of particular claims to “social justice.” I keep expecting someone to say any time now: “The much vaunted ‘academic freedom’ will be driven from the . . . university, for this freedom is spurious because purely negative.” Sounds about right, no? What’s missing from the ellipses above? The word “German.” Go plug it back in and reread it, for this was the phrase Martin Heidegger included in his infamous rector’s address at the University of Freiburg in 1933, when he threw in his lot with the Nazis.

The latter parallel seems a bit strong at this point, even with some of the real concerns about freedom of expression and open debate at universities.

What is also very important to note is that the media’s portrayal of the mood on campus is at best incomplete. Student marches and protests make for good TV and seemingly outrageous student demands play well in print media, but those involved with the campus protests, which have yet to be given a name, represent only a minority of the campus population.

I think it is safe to say that a plurality and maybe even a majority of students, faculty and staff on campuses do not share the views of the most ardent protestors.  Those uninvolved are either apolitical — meaning they are uninterested in campus politics and are simply focused on their own objectives and priorities, mainly getting an education to move ahead in life — or they are not openly engaged because they do not want to publicly disagree with the protestors and face a potential backlash for engaging the debate.

What is interesting is that in recent weeks there has been a third group — beyond the apolitical and those keeping their heads down of critics of the student protests and the perceived mood on campuses: those who have actively defended freedom of expression and speech.  At Brown there is an underground forum in which anonymous participants can openly share their views on any controversial issue.  The founder of the forum, sophomore Chris Robotham acknowledges that the anonymous structure is not ideal, but believes it is a start on the way toward more open debate.

At Princeton some students are pushing back, writing and signing a letter that says, “We are concerned mainly with the importance of preserving an intellectual culture in which all members of the Princeton community feel free to engage in civil discussion and to express their convictions without fear of being subjected to intimidation or abuse. Thanks to recent polls, surveys, and petitions, we have reason to believe that our concerns are shared by a majority of our fellow Princeton undergraduates.”

“We firmly believe that there should be no space at a university in which any member of the community, student or faculty, is “safe” from having his or her most cherished and even identity-forming values challenged. It is the very mission of the university to seek truth by subjecting all beliefs to critical, rational scrutiny.”

Some administrators and faculties have felt the need to come out openly in defense of free expression and inquiry. Writing in the Orange County Register, Chapman University Chancellor Daniele C. Struppa noted that the Chapman faculty recently passed a statement in support of free speech and reminded readers that:

Academia, once so fiercely supportive of free speech and against any form of censorship, is now beginning to question its value. Some, in fact, are proposing to put explicit limits on it. And, if so, who determines which groups can be made fun of? Who determines which groups are untouchable? Who, ultimately, will be the censor, who decides what can be said, taught or performed? Those in academia who don’t perceive this danger will soon find out that the limits to speech they are seeking will bite their own hands.

Some Yale faculty have come out in defense of the lecturer, Erika Christakis, who is at the center of the Halloween costume letter controversy.  (Despite the support, Christakis has since decided to stop teaching at Yale.)

At the University of Chicago, the Committee on Freedom of Expression was appointed in July 2014 by President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Eric D. Isaacs, “in light of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.” The committee drafted a statement “articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University ’s community.”

The statement has been adopted or modified by a number of institutions and Greg Lukianoff, President, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) argues in the Huffington Post that “Every University in the Country Should Adopt the University of Chicago’s Academic Freedom Statement,” writing:

The Chicago statement is one of the best, most inspiring declarations of the critical importance of free speech on college campuses that I have seen in my career. And make no mistake about it, if universities reaffirm the necessity of free speech on campus, our students will enjoy better educations.

The point here is not to defend the notions of academic freedom, free expression and unfettered inquiry on the University campus.  The philosophies of open inquiry and exploration are obviously built into the founding DNA of any university worthy of the name.

Those outside the academy should remain confident that even if free speech is used to limit speech, an irony missed by most current protesters, there are still plenty of individuals on campuses—students, faculty and staff, who share the sentiment of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, author of a biography of Voltaire, who said, “”I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

By |December 7th, 2015|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments