The end of education

Posted: November 6, 2017 at 2:19 a.m.

The free-speech crisis on our college campuses is usually discussed in terms of rights; more specifically, the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and what the courts have more ambiguously referred to as freedom of "expression."

Less frequently discussed is the manner in which those who wish to ban any speech that might be construed as offensive are threatening the fundamental purpose of a college education, even of the broader idea of education itself.

Going beyond the demands for "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces" and the shouting down of conservative speakers and professors lies the most dangerous idea of all--that advocacy on behalf of the principle of free speech is in itself "hate speech" and must be suppressed accordingly.

The ironies abound here, including in the fact that those arguing for the suppression of free speech are themselves engaging in advocacy only made possible by free speech; that the would-be censors on our campuses attacking the notion of a marketplace of ideas can do so only if academe rejects censorship and remains committed to such a marketplace.

But the damage inflicted by the growing attacks upon the free-speech principle goes beyond simply rendering our colleges and universities unfit for civilized discourse, as tragic as that would ultimately be, because it also implies an abdication of their role as institutions of higher education.

The purpose of education is the pursuit of truth, but truth cannot be pursued if all pathways to it which conflict with a particular worldview are foreclosed at the outset. If, as is increasingly the case, anything that the left disagrees with is defined as "hate speech," there will, in the end, be no speech on campus at all, not even leftist speech.

Why this will be the inevitable extrapolation begins with the corroding effect upon the ability to reason: At the heart of the notion of critical thinking, which all colleges claim to be inculcating, is not just the capacity to grasp and critique arguments, but an inherent intellectual skepticism that challenges all forms of orthodoxy and rejects conformity of thought in favor of thinking for oneself.

To leave students with a lack of knowledge of the widest possible array of positions on matters of intellectual concern out of fear of offending any member of a supposedly marginalized group is to commit a crime against learning itself and against such students; it is to leave them with no ability to critically assess ideas, even the ones they think are their own.

Such students will have been instructed on what to believe but will have no understanding of why they believe it; having been spared the intellectual rough-and-tumble of free inquiry and debate, they will be ignorant of not just the other side but also of theirs.

We cannot, after all, know what we should believe unless we have been allowed to consider the very range of alternatives that the opponents of free speech seek to suppress; we cannot "know" that certain ideas are "wrong" if we are unable to subject them to scrutiny.

The resort to coercion is a sign of intellectual insecurity and inferiority, as well as an eventual guarantor of it--the side that seeks to suppress does so because it lacks confidence in its own positions and knows it can prevail only by preventing us from hearing others, and when the resort to suppression becomes increasingly reflexive and relied upon, the intellect decays from lack of use.

There is also no "limiting principle" of any kind here--once we head down the path of censoring unfashionable ideas, censorship of more ideas is certain to follow, with the range of ideas acceptable for expression gradually narrowing to the point where none are left.

In such a vicious downward spiral, the suppressors engage in the equivalent of intellectual disarmament, and leave their students disarmed as well. When alternatives cannot be considered and orthodoxy is shielded from any scrutiny, stupidity and ignorance become the only possible outcomes.

What this all means for the fate of the university is not difficult to discern--there will be no debate or reasoned discourse because there is no tolerance of opposing ideas, hence no real educational experience of value to offer. Faculty and students will be constantly forced to weigh risk when engaging in the thought that precedes expression, and silence will descend out of fear of expressing the "wrong ideas," with "wrong" constantly fluctuating and taking abrupt, unexpected turns.

With ideological conformity required, scholarship, teaching and reasoned discourse, the very purposes of the academy, will be lost. Our campuses will become barren wastelands producing only drones incapable of thinking. The most cowardly and dull among us will thrive in such environments, which will become still more insular and irrelevant as a result.

In the end, those who seek to ban ideas they disagree with will only end up banning the expression of all ideas; they will inherit academe but it will no longer be academe as we knew it because it is no longer interested in learning and truth.

There will be, as result, no reason for it to exist.

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Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 11/06/2017