The marketplace of ideas
Posted on November 7, 2008
One of the things that I value most deeply about academia is that it remains an open marketplace of ideas, one of the few remaining in our society. One of the most important intellectual functions of the university is to sponsor debate. Having someone as unpopular as the infamous Ward Churchill (of 9-11 “the victims deserved it fame”) or William Ayers, of more recent fame, on campus does not in any way endorse their views.
It does provide a hearing for deeply unpopular positions and a chance to challenge and offer counter arguments. If our constitution is in part designed to protect the rights of the minority, a university should similarly provide protected space for minority views. If we find those views offensive or dead wrong, let them perish at the hand of good argument, data, reasoned debate, and critical appraisal.
Why do I bring this up?
Earlier in the semester I chose to sign on to the Amethyst Initiative, an effort by John McCardell (former President of Middlebury College and an old friend from my Vermont days) to reopen the debate over the minimum drinking age. John and I used to discuss our frustration over the abstinence approach to drinking and the ways it prevented us from trying to create a healthy culture around alcohol on our campuses. Our fear was that abstinence drove drinking behavior off campus where it was frequently excessive and risky and removed from any kind of campus intervention or safety net.
A growing body of research challenging some of the underlying assumptions for the current law seems to invite an open and constructive re-examination of the science and debate over the public policy, but there remain very good reasons for the 21-year-old drinking minimum and I expected disagreement with my call to re-examine the question. Some of that disagreement came from SNHU staff who deal every day with the consequences of high risk behaviors and I respect and welcome their insights.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the deluge of letters and e-mails (about 1,000 in the first four days) demanding that I withdraw my name and vehemently maintaining that no debate should take place. I sensed in those unbending responses some of the strain of absolutism that fuels fundamentalism in and out of this country. For those attacking the Amethyst Initiative the question is black and white, but matters of public policy are rarely so and I reflexively distrust the positions of those who would say “We must not have this discussion.”
In the university we welcome the discussion, even when it makes us uncomfortable.
As Norman Mailer said in one of his books published just before his death last year, “Fundamentalism is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.” Those interested in mass destruction of any open exchange of ideas on unpopular topics let you know their plans.
If there is any place left in America where we can test any and all ideas it is in the university. If we give that power up, the game is over. Unless government under a new regime in a unique crisis is able to entertain a few new and unpopular ideas. I say let’s become a center for testing all kinds of ideas. That would be just one more way in which we’ve changed dramatically over the past 20-30 years on this campus.
I was struck by the nervousness some faculty and staff had about bringing The Vagina Monologues to campus last year. That’s exactly the kind of provocative art I would hope to see more of on campus. When I arrived five years ago and spoke openly about being a campus culture where gay and lesbian students and staff and faculty (I’d now add bisexual and transgendered) could feel absolutely at home there were some who again expressed anxiety (and relief).
Some might see these as liberal biases. They are not (though my actual biases would likely be deemed quite liberal). My bias as university president is to see ideas of all kinds examined and shared and put to the test. It is also to construct an environment where that process is conducted with civility, intellectual integrity, and respect for divergent views.
I am afraid both of these biases are rarely on exhibit in the public discourse these days. I liked Barak Obama and John McCain best when they stood up for that approach and enjoyed seeing them together yesterday vowing to work together.
Your reference to the Vagina Monologues from last year encouraged me to reflect on that experience, as I served on the Women’s History Month Committee. I think the notion of the university as “a marketplace of ideas” connects well with the blog about culture and having a student-centered focus. The Women’s History Month Committee did not want to support a particular point of view by offering events such as the monologues or author Cristina Page. It wanted to simply share a small slice of women’s history through the lens of art. Sure, there was some controversy. What I found most intriguing and delightful about the Vagina Monlogues was not its message, but how proud I felt watching my students, advisees, colleagues, and coworkers expose themselves through the drama medium. All walks of life were up on that stage – the real people, not the roles. I think they were and are amazing. I fully support expressing hidden diversity and viewpoints on a campus where it is not readily seen.