The need for viewpoint diversity on campus was a major theme of many commencement addresses this spring, from speakers on the left and the right. Below are excerpts. Fareed Zakaria’s address at Bucknell was particularly noteworthy; we give a long excerpt.
|Hillary Clinton – Wellesley, May 26||“At their best, our colleges and universities are free marketplaces of ideas. Embracing a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. That’s our country at our best, too. An open, inclusive, diverse society is the opposite of an anecdote to a closed society where there is only one right way to think, believe, and act.”|
|Mike Pence – Notre Dame, May 21||“If the emanations of free speech were charted on a map like infrared heat signatures, one would hope that universities would be the hottest places – red and purple with dispute; not dark blue and white – frozen into cant, orthodoxy, and intellectual stasis.”|
|Shuping Yang – Maryland, May 21||“I would soon feel another kind of fresh air for which I will be forever grateful. The fresh air of free speech. Democracy and free speech should not be taken for granted. Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for.”|
|Drew Faust – Harvard, May 25||“Ensuring freedom of speech is not just about allowing speech. It is about actively creating a community where everyone can contribute and flourish, a community where argument is relished, not feared. Freedom of speech is not just freedom from censorship; it is freedom to actively join the debate as a full participant. It is about creating a context in which genuine debate can happen.”|
|Cory Booker – Penn, May 15||“Now, I’m not asking folks to do what my heroes did like Mandela did in prison who found a way to love his captors and eventually forgive them or Gandhi with the oppressive, imperialistic regime, but still found a way to love his enemy, or Martin Luther King who literally got on his knees and prayed for white supremacists, no. I’m just asking you, hey, can you sit down with somebody that’s wearing a red “Make American Great Again” hat and have a conversation. And, by the way, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given, was simply this, “Talk to the person, but you don’t have to attend every argument you’ve invited to.” You could look for other common ground.”|
|Martin Baron – George Mason, May 20||“Another principle of George Mason is naturally close to my heart: freedom of the press. His Virginia Declaration of Rights called it ‘one of the great bulwarks of liberty.’ This gave rise to the First Amendment, which allowed not just freedom of the press but freedom of expression of every variety — and for everyone. Today, it permits free expression in music, movies, advertising, social media. In the everyday conversations with friends, family, and colleagues.”|
|Fareed Zakaria – Bucknell, May 21||But I wanted to talk today about another sense in which the liberal arts are under threat. This is really the other word in liberal arts that is under threat — liberal. Liberal, by the way does not refer in any sense to the modern political notion of liberal. It refers to liberal in the original Latin sense, pertaining to liberty.
The entire purpose of a liberal arts education was to prepare you to exercise those skills of citizenship and wisdom, public wisdom, that would allow you to live as free men and women
And I worry about it because in some ways this is at the heart of the Western tradition. This is at the heart of what made the West unique and special for so many years — that ability to preserve, protect and defend liberty, and at the heart of that idea of liberty was the liberty to think, speak, believe, act, but perhaps above all to speak.
In that sense, the liberty of talk, freedom of speech, does strike me as under some considerable strain in the United States, from all kinds of sources, but one source that’s very important is on college campuses.
You all have heard and read about the various places where people have been disinvited or have been invited and then booed or shunned or not allowed to complete their talks — the protests that have taken place. These strike me as fundamentally illiberal, if not un-American. The whole purpose of the liberal tradition, the whole purpose of the liberal arts, has been to hear people out, to listen to opposing views.
At the start of the Enlightenment, Voltaire famously said, “I disagree with every word that you have said, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Now, this is one of those quotes in journalism which we call too good to check. Unfortunately, I did have to check it for this speech. He never said that. It does accurately capture his views, but he never actually said those specific words. But let’s imagine Voltaire said that.
But what I will tell you, what people have said, and these are important words, is Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, when we protect freedom of thought, we are protecting freedom for the thought that we hate. This is very important. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, is not freedom for people we like, for warm, fuzzy ideas that we find comfortable. It is for ideas that you find offensive. Not just wrong, but offensive.
Perhaps the greatest exponent of the freedom of speech, and of freedom in general, is John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher of the 19th century who in some ways articulated the idea behind the Western tradition of liberty best. And he says, however unwillingly the person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully and frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not living truth.
And that is sometimes what I feel when I walk around college campuses, that you all believe things passionately but as dead dogmas, not as living truths, because you don’t argue about them enough. You don’t confront people who argue against you. You turn your back to them. And I don’t want you to turn your back to people; I want you to turn your face, your mind. Debate with them. Argue with them. Explain to them why you think you’re right, why you’re wrong. And guess what? You will discover in that that no matter who you’re talking to, there’s something you learn from that exchange. That there’s some way in which they are addressing a concern that is real. There is some argument that they have that you might have overlooked.
That’s why Mill said if opponents of all-important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments, which the most skillful devil’s advocate could conjure up. You don’t need to imagine these people; just invite them to your campuses. Just allow them to speak, and then argue with them. And in that contestation of ideas we have always held, somehow a greater truth emerges.
There is, we all know, a kind of anti-intellectualism on the right these days – the denial of facts, of reason, of science. But there is also an anti-intellectualism on the left. An attitude of righteousness that says we are so pure, we are so morally superior, we cannot bear to hear an idea that we don’t like or disagree with. There is no such idea. There is no idea that is beyond the pale. Everything should be within the arena and should be worth contesting.
I talk about liberals because campuses are invariably more liberal than conservative. And it is a real problem to have this kind of silencing of conservative voices. Michael Rock, the president of Wesleyan, points out that at this point on college campuses, you perhaps need an affirmative action program for conservatives, just to be able to hear what they’re saying. I doubt very much that conservatives would like that idea, but I think the spirit is one that is entirely right.
We want to celebrate every kind of diversity these days except intellectual diversity.
It’s important to just remember some facts here. In 2016 a Pew study found that while Democrats were more likely to view Republicans as close-minded, when you actually do the analysis, each side is about the same in terms of closed-mindedness and hostility to hearing views that they don’t agree with. Let me tell you the simple, practical reason for why you should fight actively against this.
When you go on in your lives and you find yourselves in positions of some authority or decision-making, the most dangerous thing you will find is the ability to not imagine that things could go wrong. That your course of action could be the wrong one. And so the most important skill you need is to ask yourself, what am I not seeing? What is the best argument against what I am doing? If you look back at the crises that this country has faced, that businesses have faced, almost always, if the CEO or the president had asked, what could go wrong? What am I missing, what is the best, strongest case against what I am doing? — things would have worked out better.
It is the greatest danger I think you will face over the course of your lives – this ability to close yourselves off into some kind of bubble where you don’t contemplate the possibility that you are wrong.
There’s a broader political challenge it creates, I think, which is as a society, we need that ability to understand each other. You know, we’re living in times as I was describing. Technology, capitalism, globalization — all of these things are powerful, but they are all driving us apart. They are segregating us, in terms of education, in terms of the cities versus the rural areas, in terms of the people who are able to surf this world of globalization and technology and those who aren’t.
All these forces are pulling us apart. And perhaps it is this extraordinary force of a liberal education that can try to bring us together, to bring us together by at least having a common conversation. By talking about the things that we agree with, by talking about the things that we don’t agree with, so that we can together find a way to come together at least in our understanding that we do actually have a common destiny.
That is the greatest gif that a liberal education can give you as a person, in your lives, in your careers, in your personal lives, but also in your public lives as citizens. That is in many ways the point of a liberal education from the start. It was invented in that way by the Greeks, when they invented democracy. They decided that we need to train people not just to hunt and farm and fish, but we need to train them to be citizens. And I think this is even more important today as we find ourselves in a world where we in many ways don’t think we are citizens of the same republic, citizens of the same common space.
So I plead with you, not just on college campuses but through life, keep yourselves open, keep yourselves able to listen to, to argue with, to engage with people of wildly different perspectives, even the ones that you cannot abide.