I am as disturbed as anyone by the campus disruptions that keep certain “unacceptable” persons from speaking. College campuses should be places of free and open discourse and the free exchange of ideas. Simply shouting down opinions is not an effective way of dealing with them. It simply drives your opponents underground and encourages the notion that what is at issue is power, not truth; in which case, it merely instigates expressions of power from the other side. Universities were founded so that differences could be discussed, not violently fought over.
I am of “conservative” bent, but if you asked me whether I am in favor of “conservative” groups inviting speakers like Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos to campus, my answer is no. This is different from asking whether such groups should be allowed to invite these speakers to campus. What a college should or should not allow on campus involves a host of considerations, pedagogical and otherwise, which I am not addressing here. What I am suggesting is simply that if the leaders of a conservative group came to me as a professor and asked, “Would you support us inviting these speakers to campus?,” I’d say “no.”
I would encourage the leaders of any conservative or liberal group to be more thoughtful in their invitations – that is to say, more “thoughtful” about the nature of the discussion they want to engender. Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter are bomb throwers. They are celebrities in a celebrity culture that rewards crudity and crassness, not thoughtful opinion. Real conservatives need to do better. Real Catholics as well. They need to sponsor thoughtful people who have done serious research and writing on important topics.
Make no mistake; this is still likely to stir things up for plenty of people on most campuses. Charles Murray is a serious scholar who has done serious work. There is no excuse for keeping him off a campus, whether one agrees with him or not. Years ago, Charles Murray came to a campus where I was a student, and I asked him a question about his most recent book. I tried to be respectful with my question, but I thought his argument had serious weaknesses. He was respectful in his reply. I wasn’t convinced. It was an interesting exchange. Afterward, I had a long conversation with some fellow students. The entire evening was what I thought a university education was supposed to be about.
The problem doesn’t start with campus student groups, however. Often they are merely imitating the practices of the campus faculty and administrators. I know dozens of superb faculty members who would give excellent talks on interesting and important topics, some more academic (on, say, Homer’s Iliador medieval women mystics), some on more “topical” subjects, such as the cultural and political history of Islam or the history of immigration policy in the United States. But very few of these superb scholars get invited to speak anymore. The women are often only asked to speak on “women’s issues” rather than their expertise in, say, tax policy or the thought of Tocqueville.
What we are getting instead is a culture of “celebrity” lectures. Campus groups and administrators don’t default to serious academic lectures anymore; they tend toward someone who has been on television or otherwise gained notoriety. Why? Because they assume the lecture will not be well attended otherwise. Students and administrators (and need I add, too many faculty) are not really interested in the world of serious scholarship anymore. They want the college equivalent of what in professional wrestling is called the “Wow!” factor. Is it any wonder, then, that students in imitation of their elders often choose speakers who specialize in the academic equivalent of “trash talk.”
Campus faculty and administration must lead the way by inviting speakers who foster dialogue; they should largely avoid those who are merely ideological bomb throwers or media celebrities. And they absolutely must stop inviting politicians to campus and then treat them as if they were celebrities. Paying Hillary Clinton (or Donald Trump or any other politician) $30,000 to give a twenty or thirty minute speech on campus which everyone knows will be filled with empty platitudes and no chance for serious academic questioning, simply so that the school can gain a mention in the next day’s New York Times, is a corrupt practice and must stop.
Colleges and universities are places where serious discussions should take place. Who expects to go to the Oxford Debating Club and get a pass? No one. Why should a politician (or anyone else) not have to answer serious student questions? It shouldn’t happen. It sets a poor example. Each speaker who comes to campus should give a thoughtful presentation and then answer thoughtful questions. And no one should get paid more than a few thousand dollars for a talk. If the speaker wants more, let him or her go on the circuit. Colleges and universities should not be places for political theater or the media circus.
Celebrities should stay on television. Ann Coulter gets enough time to air her views on television. We don’t need to hear more from her or from any other celebrity, liberal or conservative. People who want to hear their views can find them easily enough. Universities should sponsor those who have not been heard but should be.
“But we’ll get a big audience,” people say. You may. But you’re not the WWE. You’re a university. Have some pride. Take your calling seriously. Introduce the students to serious discourse. With serious people. And then challenge them with serious questions. And then let’s hear people with very different ideas and challenge them with another round of serious-but-respectful questions. And let’s keep doing that until we have trained a generation of students how to engage in respectful dialogue of the sort that a democracy, if we are to keep it, requires.
*Image: Middlebury College students refuse even to listen to distinguished scholar and author Charles Murray [photo: Michael Borenstein/New York Times]