Unlearning Liberty to the Detriment of Us All

A nation that does not educate in liberty will not long preserve it and will not even know when it is lost.” —Alan Kors

Since my days as an undergraduate, I’ve been a major supporter of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and its tireless efforts in defending the academic freedom of students and faculty alike regardless of cause. In this day and age where illiberal attitudes on campuses are the norm and not the exception, FIRE president Greg Lukianoff’s new book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate could not be more timely.

A self-described atheist and “lifelong Democrat,” Lukianoff has written an exposé that cannot be easily dismissed as a right-wing tirade against political correctness run amok. Anyone who spends the slightest amount of time in higher education these days could lament the sad state of discourse. Instead of a freewheeling environment where controversial ideas can be advocated and debated, students and faculty taking the “wrong” stance can expect to be punished. Lukianoff cites a disturbing 2010 study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities that surveyed 24,000 college students and 9,000 faculty, and found that 35.6 percent of students and only 16.7 percent of the faculty strongly agreed with the statement: “It is safe to hold unpopular positions on campus.” With this kind of hostile environment, it comes as no surprise that the nation’s colleges and universities are full stories of censorship, deprival of due process, politically motivated “investigations,” forced ideological indoctrination, and other shameful episodes that would shock people of all persuasions.

Unlearning Liberty reveals a wide range of incidents from the laughably absurd to the truly frightening:

This is just a small sampling of the thousands of cases Lukianoff and FIRE have dealt with in the past decade.

Reflecting upon my own college experience, the unfortunate trend of “unlearning liberty” in higher education as described by Lukianoff is very real and unsettling. I served as an officer in two different student clubs and witnessed one too many of our flyers disappear under suspicious circumstances. My alma mater Case Western Reserve University earned FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month in December 2010 for its infamous ban on the use of university facilities and resources that might be used to advocate a partisan position. I remember clearly how much grief this ridiculously overbroad policy caused student organizations of all persuasions, yet no one tried to mount a serious effort to have it repealed. I’ve also witnessed firsthand the mob mentality from people of all sides and the wrongheaded belief that somehow people have a right not to be offended and be shielded from views that might cause them “distress” or “emotional harm.” From my junior year, I remember anonymous chalkings and flyers attacking Planned Parenthood appeared all over the campus. I witnessed offended students take hoses to wash away the chalkings and even saw a status update on Facebook that bragged about how all the flyers were ripped down in a few hours. I also remember when signs that highlighted the plight of the Palestinians were ripped down by pro-Israel students. Regardless of how passionately one might feel about reproductive rights, Middle Eastern policy, or other hot-button issues, vandalism and hooliganism directed against the other side is never the answer.

It is bad enough that students cannot have a civil discourse on controversial issues without the fear of being vandalized, shouted down, and facing some of kind of reprisal. But these negative attitudes have long-term implications for American society. Lukianoff points out that this kind of atmosphere results in even greater polarization as people retreat into echo chambers to seek refuge with only those they already agree with. Illiberal attitudes also carry over into the real world, and we see this in the form of the shouting matches that define modern partisan politics and sensationalist media. I’ve encountered my fair share of people who usually are very smart but have difficulty defending their views when challenged by serious criticism and too often resort to using strawmen and ad hominems.

It is unfortunate that academia has not done a better job in rectifying such shortcomings but instead has reinforced the wrong lessons about what it means to live a free society. Lukianoff refers to Richard Arum and Josipa Roska’s 2011 book, Academically Adrift, which highlighted the failure of academia to cultivate critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills: 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college and 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college. Arum and Roska also found that most students lack the ability to argue more than one side of an issue or even demonstrate simple debate skills. As a result, higher education is producing graduates who lack the experience of unfettered debate and ability to deal with opponents as adults.

Lukianoff ends with an impassioned plea:

As a nation, we need to remember that practices like censorship merely encourage people to stay within their echo chambers and produce narrower, less creative thinkers—and that the rough-and-tumble of meaty deliberation is not only edifying, but even quite fun once you get used to it. We must remember the simple yet essential value of knowing people as they are and understanding what they actually believe, both good and bad. To pretend that we can improve any social problem by simply demanding that people not speak their minds is foolish, and will only lead to an increasingly distorted perception of how the world works.

Too many of our future leaders are educated in an atmosphere that actively practices selective censorship and demonstrates little tolerance for free and open discourse. If our ultimate goal is to live in an open, bold, and free society in which people are unafraid to play with ideas—and it should be, for the health of our democracy—we must ensure that the values of free speech and open inquiry are preserved on our nation’s campuses. It will be a long battle, but it is one that we cannot afford to lose.

I cannot recommend Unlearning Liberty highly enough. I can only hope that students, alumni, faculty, and concerned citizens take heed of Lukianoff’s message. In the spirit of Mill, Locke, and Jefferson, people need to rediscover and embrace the principles of free speech, critical inquiry, and open discourse not just for the sake of opposing suppression of ideas they find “offensive” or disagree with, but also for our long-term success as free individuals living in a dynamic, vibrant society.

Aaron Tao is the former Assistant Editor of the Independent Institute's blog, The Beacon.
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