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.