BY JONATHAN MARKS
Guest blogger Jonathan Marks teaches political philosophy at Ursinus College.
John Villasenor, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute is only the latest commentator to worry aloud about our college young, who don’t understand or value freedom of expression. A survey he conducted contains familiar bad news. A majority of respondents holds the false belief that hate speech is unprotected by the First Amendment. A majority also prefers a “positive learning environment,” in which certain offensive or biased speech is prohibited, to an “open learning environment,” in which offensive or biased speech is allowed.
These students don’t seem to value speech enough to worry about prohibiting some of it. But then, why would they hold speech in especially high regard?
The view that speech is less a way to pursue and enunciate truths than a way for skilled speakers to get the better of others, sounds like newfangled philosophy, but it is a perfectly sensible conclusion for undergraduates to draw from their own experiences. In public, my students are used, like the rest of us, to seeing hired speaking guns on television, vying to make weak arguments appear strong, and often succeeding. In the classroom, they are used to seeing successful students holding no particular brief for the truth, smoothly saying what’s needed to impress their teachers and thereby outperform their rivals. In comparison to this direct experience, historical or philosophical lessons regarding the danger of granting states—much less seemingly benign college administrators—authority over speech are not easy to drive home.
That is still more true when it comes to educating students to tolerate hate speech. If it is difficult to hold ordinary speech in especially high regard, it is positively strange to think, as I and other free speech advocates do, that Nazis have a right to march through a Jewish neighborhood, or that a student expelled by a public university for leading a racist song should be able to sue and win. Although public alarm at surveys like the one Villaseno commisioned takes it for granted that our students should hold that view, it is not exactly common sense to think that manifestly odious or worthless speech, particularly when it causes suffering, should be faithfully protected.
For that reason it won’t do much for student understanding of or support for free speech to maintain, as Villasenor and others urge, “a campus environment in which students are exposed to a broad range of views, including some that students may find disagreeable.” Mere exposure to a marketplace of ideas, in which the hucksters outnumber and frequently outmaneuver the sages, is not an education. Yet our arguments about free speech on campus frequently turn on the importance of letting propagandists of the right and left slug it out in front of our students, as if the truth will magically emerge from a duel between shameless liars. There are good reasons to tolerate such slugfests on campus, but it is foolish to imagine that students exposed to them will emerge as free speech partisans.
What colleges and universities can and must do is constitute themselves as intellectual communities that bear little resemblance to the communities with which incoming students are familiar. Even the best of those students, who come in with the virtues to outshine their classmates in oral and written work, have little conception of what virtues would be required to live in a community aware of how little it knows about the most important things, full of longing to know, and determined to follow arguments wherever they might lead. To initiate students into that kind of community, a community represented at best intermittently and imperfectly by their teachers, is the highest and most difficult task of liberal education.
Whether students who have had a taste of this kind of community will be First Amendment absolutists is an open question. But they will be the last to underestimate the importance of speech.