Why I Can't Get Behind the Middlebury Statement

I'm a librarian, so of course I believe in free inquiry. But not exactly in these terms.

March 16, 2017

I believe in freedom of speech. I believe in the value of exploring ideas you don’t agree with. I believe in the value of the Freedom to Read Statement, formulated and adopted during the McCarthy era by publishers and librarians who pushed back against the then-dominant idea that those who associated with the wrong ideas should be investigated in a cloud of suspicion that could get a person fired or worse. The statement is strongly non-partisan in that it argues all ideas, even those considered offensive and dangerous by the majority, should be made available, that personal history and affiliations should not bar access to writings, nor should making those writings available be considered endorsement.

But I’m not in favor of the Middlebury Statement that’s making the rounds, and I’m trying to sort out what kind of statement I would make instead. (I actually annotated it using hypothes.is to give it a closer reading. If you're looking for cool tools to use in class, this is a good one, and can be set up for a private group if you want to share without sharing with the entire world.)

Here's a line that bothers me:

Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.

I don’t believe knowledge is born out of the clash of ideas, or that somehow we need clashes to rise above the brute emotionalism of opinions. I’ve experienced plenty of clashes of ideas thanks to CNN and the PBS News Hour, not to mention the comments sections of this publication. Sometimes I learn from them. More often, I only learn how deep-seated people’s opinions are and how wide a gulf there is between the rational bases upon which they are grounding their arguments. I also think about the people who don't see their perspectives represented by "both sides" and who can't see themselves engaging in this kind of battle of reasons and facts and rhetorical skill. Not everyone is equally armed for clashes, nor should they have to be.

Oh, ideas can clash, and in ways good and bad, but knowledge is also born out of conversations long into the night among friends and strangers, and interactions in labs and libraries and studios, and out of lived experience, out of personal sorrow and sometimes out of joy.

Then there's this:

The primary purpose of higher education is the cultivation of the mind, thus allowing for intelligence to do the hard work of assimilating and sorting information and drawing rational conclusions.

The cultivation of rational thought isn’t the only thing that matters when we learn in college or strive to make new knowledge. We need to cultivate more than just the part of the mind that processes information and evaluates evidence. We need to help our students think about the contexts in which we historically and currently approach differences in ideas, and we need to be aware of the different perspectives our lives and the lives of our ancestors have given us as we hold our conversations. This, I think, is what fundamentally bothers me about the statement. It seems to buy into the idea that liberal arts colleges are intolerant places without acknowledging the difference between being a bestselling author and public figure and being a student who disagrees fundamentally with the ideas the speaker has promoted and feels betrayed by an institution that insists that we clash our ideas together, but only if we can do it politely.

“Cultivation” is an interesting word choice. I turned to the trusty OED and saw it refers to a variety of things: preparing the land for growing crops, the act of improving plants or animals (“especially for commercial purposes”), refining or improving a person through education or training, devotion to an area of study, social refinement, and paying attention to someone to win friendship or curry favor. In all of these cases something is being done by someone to something or someone in order to grow something or improve or benefit.

But somehow combining “clash” with “cultivate” bothers me. It’s sort of pseudo-Darwinian. We’ll improve ideas through competition and weeding out the weak. May the best ideas win. I can't help thinking of the ways famines happen when conflicts prevent people from tending their fields and all that they have planted has gotten trampled. In those conflicts, eventually there will be a winner and someone will claim those fields, but it hardly matters.

I am drawn instead to the agricultural language of the old plaque on Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin.

Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

We need to winnow and sift, but we also need to cultivate and tend and look up the sky and guess when the next rains will come and help each other out when they don’t. Not all wisdom is gained through reasoning. Conflict doesn’t make all ideas stronger. And while a diversity of ideas, like a biodiversity, is a good, healthy thing to have, we have to take a lot of conditions into account as we tend to our campus common ground.

What would my statement say? I don't know, but I can't help remembering the words of a conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott in The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind (which may be in your library if you want to look it up). They don't tell the whole story, and he doesn't use exactly the metaphors or include the quibbles I might find necessary about how difficult it is to make sure some are not silenced and yes, we can argue about barbarians and civilized men and I'm sure many scholars would take issue with whether it's philosophically cogent or not, but . . . well, it's a kinder, less combative view of how we know, together, without winners and losers.

It may be supposed that the diverse idioms of utterance which make up current human intercourse have some meeting-place and compose a manifold of some sort. And, as I understand it, the image of this meeting-place is not an inquiry or an argument, but a conversation.

In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no 'truth' to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing. Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument. . . . In conversation, 'facts' appear only to be resolved once more into the possibilities from which they were made; 'certainties' are shown to be combustible, not by being brought in contact with other 'certainties' or with doubts, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order; approximations are revealed between notions normally remote from one another. Thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other's movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions. Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part. There is no symposiarch or arbiter, not even a doorkeeper to examine credentials. Every entrant is taken at its face-value and everything is permitted which can get itself accepted into the flow of speculation. And voices which speak in conversation do not compose a hierarchy. Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, not is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering. Properly speaking, it is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another.

This, I believe, is the appropriate image of human intercourse, appropriate because it recognizes the qualities, the diversities, and the proper relationships of human utterances. As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian. Indeed, it seems not improbable that it was the engagement in this conversation (where talk is without a conclusion) that gave us our present appearance, man being descended from a race of apes who sat in talk so long and so late that they wore out their tails. Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance.



Back to Top