What a pleasure it was to learn a few weeks ago that students at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, had taken the lead on their campus in endorsing the Chicago Statement on Freedom of Expression and calling for the faculty and administration of their school to incorporate its principles into university policy.
The Statement has been adopted on a number of campuses around the country, usually at the instigation of faculty, sometimes of administrators or governing boards, but this was the first time I had seen a student government seize the initiative. It’s an old joke that higher education is the only business where the customers demand less than their money’s worth, rarely complaining about canceled classes or light assignments, but here is a group of students who appear to be demanding more out of college, if not more work at least a better articulation of what college is supposed to be about.
The Chicago Statement was announced two years ago, having been drafted in 2014 by a faculty committee appointed by the provost at the University of Chicago, under the leadership of former provost and Edward H. Levi Professor of Law, Geoffrey Stone. The occasion for its composition was the pall that had been cast over university campuses across the country in the previous decade by the extension of harassment law, originally formulated to protect minority employees in the workplace from hostile co-workers, into generalized concern for the campus environment, not as an environment specifically for learning but as a place where students can feel comfortable. In an age of competition for students and tuition dollars at many schools, administrators had been bending over backwards to ensure that students have all the creature comforts of middle-class American life—a variety of foods in the dining halls, nice bedrooms, plenty of entertainment and exercise options, and ample broadband Wi-Fi everywhere they go—so perhaps it just seemed to them a natural extension of solicitude for student well-being. Besides, most universities had made a concerted effort in recent decades to include a diverse student body from various regions of the country, indeed from around the world, as well as with different ethnic and class backgrounds, resulting in multiple kinds and levels of civility and thus in lots of social friction.
It soon became apparent, however, that efforts towards comfortable civility, however laudable in themselves, had begun to impede on the core educational mission of the university. Students instructed to be nice in the dorms now became offended when unfamiliar ideas were introduced in the classroom or controversial opinions were expressed in public forums on campus. On some campuses speech codes were formulated, often with sweeping prohibitions against anything that might be interpreted by hearers as offensive. On some campuses faculty were called to account in front of personnel officers for things they said in the course of teaching, even for student perceptions of their demeanor. Student protestors felt empowered to try to shut out speakers they found politically offensive from campus—whether by forcing withdrawal of invitations or by disturbances that prevented actual speech. All of this was exacerbated by the velocity of censure on social media, not to mention by occasional faculty fanatics seeking to indoctrinate their students and chastise their colleagues.
Into this situation stepped the Chicago committee. If someone had told me in 2013 or 2014 that a faculty committee could address the crisis in such a way as to bridge ideological differences, I would have thought them hopelessly naïve, but that is precisely what Chicago faculty were able to do. What I admire about their Statement—apart from its serious and elevated tone, itself no small achievement, accomplished by avoiding the usual jargon—is, first, that the authors acknowledge competing values, such as civility, and second, that the Statement is uncompromising in asserting the priority of free expression in light of the purpose of the university itself, which they define as free and open inquiry. Moreover, the discussion is nuanced and precise: Part of the educational mission of the university is to teach students how to engage in debate, so free expression is not only to be tolerated, but welcomed. And while others are free to “criticize and contest” what is said, they are not free to obstruct and silence.
No, I do not think that the Statement is perfect. For example, I think it understates the importance of establishing a moral environment in which learning can best take place, and I can see that religious institutions that promote such an environment would want to amend the pronouncement that morality is wholly an individual, not community affair. Nevertheless, as Alexander Hamilton wrote of one part of the Constitution in The Federalist, “if…it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.” The Statement does not provide, nor pretend to provide, everything students need to know to be guided in their studies. The promise of free inquiry does not tell you what to study, neither what you ought to know whatever else you know, nor what studies are best suited to the tenor of your mind or most fit to help you achieve your ends. But it allows the serious alternatives to present themselves, that is, to be presented by the faculty, by outside speakers, and by fellow students, without concern about their popularity at the moment or passions of the internet mob.
So kudos to the students at Capital. May they be a model for their counterparts around the country. And may their own faculty and administration reward them for their cri de coeur by sharing with them fearlessly all that they think true and beautiful and just and good. Your college years are too short and too precious for your studies to be concerned with anything else.
This piece was originally published at The Open Inquiry Project.