A month ago, several people were arrested
at Cal State-Fullerton during a protest against the appearance of Milo Yiannapoulos. This week, protesters swarmed
a right-wing journalist giving a speech at the University of Connecticut and grabbed his lecture notes. He pursued them, a fight broke out, and he was arrested. Vandalism followed. It is clear that campus authorities still don’t know how to handle disruptions.
Surprisingly, this is one area where political partisanship largely disappears. Liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and traditionalists have united around the banner of free speech.
“These kids need to understand the First Amendment!” they say. It’s the only way to maintain the mission of higher education, which is to expose youths to difficult and contrary ideas, to question their opinions. Michael Bloomberg and Charles Koch, who otherwise disagree on many political matters, came together and put it nicely in a May 2016, op-ed in The Wall Street Journal: “The purpose of a college education isn’t to reaffirm students’ beliefs, it is to challenge, expand and refine them.”
But nothing that we’ve seen in the last year indicates that the message means anything to the young. This fundamental freedom that grown-ups across the ideological spectrum treasure hasn't made its way into the minds of the Millennials. It isn’t hard to understand why.
First of all, to speak of student “beliefs” as if they were informed and coherent enough to be challenge-able is to assume a formation that they’ve never undergone. You can’t question outlooks and opinions that are inchoate and inarticulate.
But this is the condition of most college students. According to ACT, only one-quarter of entering students are “college ready” in English, reading, math, and science. On the 2014 National Assessment of Education Progress exam in U.S. history, less than one in five (18 percent) 12th-graders reached “proficiency.” And when they get to college, according to the findings of "Academically Adrift," the influential 2011 book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, nearly half of undergraduates make no significant learning gains in their first two years.
The evidence shows that the challenge-their-beliefs approach doesn’t make sense. Teachers need to teach them something before they seek to contest it. This is more than just an ignorance problem. It explains why the free speech argument doesn’t impress the students. With meager knowledge of history, politics, art, literature, religion, and science, how are youths supposed to appreciate the value of free speech when it comes to disagreeable speakers?
Free speech has its genesis in Athens and the Wars of Religion, in scientific method and the Enlightenment and John Stuart Mill. It was those times of power politics and rampant violence that made free speech a solution and produced great apostles of liberty. Ask Millennials about those backgrounds and you’ll get a blank stare.
But ask them if someone should be able to make offensive remarks on campus and you get an immediate “Nope.” A Brookings Institution study this year found that half (51 percent) of all college students believe that it is acceptable for a student group “opposed to a speaker” to “disrupt the speech by loudly and repeatedly shouting so that the audience cannot hear the speaker.” The question only singled out an “opposed” figure, but I imagine the nay-sayers had in mind someone with the wrong ideas about one group identity or another. Indeed, this may be the only bit of knowledge that all American youths absorb in their teens: mockery and criticism of any group or individual is bad, really bad. And now they’re told that they have to countenance it?!
Everyone understands that free speech only matters when a dissenting opinion is in the room. But few people understand how fragile the ideal of free speech really is. It is more natural to us to expel a wrong opinionator, not to hear him out. We didn’t evolve in a habitat of the marketplace of ideas. We are inclined to self- and group-protection, not exposure to others. Freedom and openness could very easily collapse, as we’ve seen at Berkeley, Middlebury, Pomona . . .
It is, indeed, something of a miracle that norms of open debate, free inquiry, and truth-seeking ever took hold. The ravages of war and the breakthroughs of science in the 17th and 18th centuries led people to believe that handling disagreements through democratic means — words, not clubs; elections, not jails; science, not authority — was a better way. Without that chaotic beginning in mind, free speech loses its appeal.
Instead of giving students abstract lessons in the First Amendment, we should pass along knowledge of conditions that made free speech so attractive. Don’t treat 19-year-old minds as something to challenge and query and dispute, either. They don’t like that. Instead, teach them about the trial of Socrates, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Puritans closing down the theaters, the erasure of “enemies of the state” from photographs and newspapers in Stalin’s Soviet Union . . .
Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University and Senior Editor at First Things Magazine. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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