Speech and Dissent in Academia
News broke at the beginning of November that Liberty University had Christian pastor and author Jonathan Martin escorted off the campus while he attended a concert at the invitation of the performers. Martin’s offense? Officially, arranging to pray informally with students the next morning without obtaining the necessary permissions. Unofficially, criticizing Falwell for his support of Trump.
Although I find plenty of room for criticism in Liberty’s actions, as a private university they are within their rights to exclude whomever they please. But their ban on Martin raises, yet again, the question of what the university is for: the free exchange of idea or the promotion of a particular point of view? Christian institutions like Liberty face the even more complicated question of how to engage with a wide range of ideas while remaining faithful to their core convictions.
As an undergraduate at a Christian college, then graduate student and instructor at a large research university for ten years, then tenure-track faculty at a small Christian college for another four, I have wrestled with this question of what the university is for, and especially the Christian university. Over the past several years, the world of higher ed has struggled with the issue of how to engage with divisive ideas — a struggle that has broken into wider public consciousness periodically as students protest speakers they find objectionable.
Every society draws lines around acceptable and unacceptable ideas. At the most basic level, societies have taboos — those actions that are considered unthinkable and unforgivable, like incest. But often, what is acceptable shifts: a century ago, talking about “inferior races” was acceptable; today, most westerners find the idea deeply disturbing. Much of the problem facing universities today lies not in spoiled undergraduates but in shifting ideas about where we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable ideas, and who gets to decide where that line falls.
While the question of who gets to draw the lines gets much attention, I think we also need to ask how we can maintain a commitment to certain ideals in the face of opposing arguments. How can a university balance a commitment to valuing all humans equally with a commitment to understanding the ideas that have shaped history, even the ones that now seem abhorrent to us?
Back in the seventeenth century, the poet and thinker John Milton wrote an essay titled “Areopagitica,” in which he argues for the free exchange of ideas. Milton lived through the English Civil War, a war fought over conflicting ideas about religion and government. But despite the violence that he witnessed as ideas came into conflict, Milton argues for freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas. He is not naive about the potential dangers; he knows that ideas have power and that wrong ideas can be seductive. But Milton still argues passionately against censorship.1
For Milton, people cannot be truly educated, cannot truly know what is good, if they are only exposed to a limited set of ideas chosen by a limited set of gatekeepers. And although Milton’s argument was not accepted by the short-lived English Commonwealth, his notions of the free distribution of ideas undergird modern ideas about freedom of the press.2
Every society, and thus every system of higher education, will have its orthodoxies and the desire to protect those orthodoxies. And the risk of the free circulation of ideas is that people may be seduced by the evil ideas, or the ones outside the accepted orthodoxy — some of which may be not so much evil as simply different.
In my experience, the university — Christian or secular — functions at its best when it strives to understand its orthodoxies while also giving students the freedom to explore contrary ideas. Having commitments to certain values is a good thing, but that does not mean that we should censor anything outside those values. This balance, however, can be difficult to find; it is thus not at all surprising that in a time of social change some find comfort in clinging to old orthodoxies while refusing to acknowledge contrary ideas.
The irony is hard to miss when a school named “Liberty” errs on the side of rejecting those outside of its orthodoxy, rather than permitting the free exchange of ideas. But it’s worth taking this moment to consider the responsibility of Christian higher education: when an educational institution stops allowing dissenting voices, is it still educating? And is the goal of a Christian university to educate or to defend?
I think that the value of education far outweighs the risk of dangerous ideas. But we have to be willing to take the risk in order to gain the reward, and this is the dilemma that faces the university.