Voting Is Good, but Higher Ed Must Do More

Free expression, free inquiry and fact-based discussion are essential to higher education, Michael S. Roth writes, and we must actively protect them.

November 1, 2018
 
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In a year when inducements to political violence have become normalized at the highest level, colleges and universities must do more than just encourage our students to vote. Free expression, free inquiry and fact-based discussion are essential to higher education, and we must protect them. Diversity and inclusion are core commitments, and so we must oppose those people who cultivate hatred against immigrants or trade in racist stereotypes. And when government officials go beyond obfuscation to outright lying, we must stand up and object. If we don’t, we become complicit in the calamitous corruption infecting our society, and it may not be long before the higher education we offer is no longer worthy of the name.

There may be no more obvious attack on freedom of expression and inquiry than the Trump administration’s regular demonization of the press. Can it be that we have gotten used to campaign rallies at which reporters are described as “disgusting” and the news media is labeled an enemy of the people? Can we abide a president who tells the media to “clean up its act” when it is the target of terrorism? If one objects to this crude stoking of animosity, defenders of the regime will accuse one of “pearl clutching,” as if defending the dignity of journalists were akin to protecting snobbish privileges. When authorities in Saudi Arabia devised their heinous plot to torture and murder a critic of the regime, did they assume their friends in the White House would understand their desire to punish a writer for The Washington Post? Is objecting to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder pearl clutching?

Education is degraded when freedom of inquiry and expression are undermined. We must not be lured, however, into confronting the poisonous partisan dogmatism coming from Washington with similar dogmatism of our own. If we do so, we will merely be preaching to our own choirs. We must instead promote the importance of intellectual diversity in higher education, and we must beware of confusing the critical thinking we value with the ready-made ideological positions held by the majority of professors and students. Colleges and universities must remain open to a variety of intellectual and cultural traditions if they are to speak meaningfully about freedom of inquiry.

We must also not let the administration and its supporters make a mockery of American aspirations toward diversity, equity and inclusion in our institutions and in the larger society. We at colleges and universities have an obligation to preserve those aspirations, for they are essential to the learning environments that we aim to create. The current demonization of immigrants, for example, is meant to instill a sense of fear and insecurity among folks who have lived in this country for many years as productive members of society. Many of our higher education institutions offer support to our undocumented colleagues and friends, and we have pledged not to voluntarily cooperate with federal authorities seeking to intimidate or deport them.

It is true enough that politicians from various points on the political spectrum have long pontificated, stretched the truth, pumped themselves up and distorted inconvenient facts. But over the last two years, we have seen a callous disregard for truth become an ordinary part of public life. Educators must push back on this trend, but not just by digging into our own ideological commitments. People of goodwill, of course, can disagree about issues concerning freedom, the role of the military, the importance of markets and the responsibilities of the state to protect law and order and to help the most vulnerable members of society. No political tradition has a monopoly on the truth. In fact, that’s why intellectual diversity and freedom of inquiry are so vital: we need that diversity and freedom to see the errors of our own ways and to discover more equitable and effective ways of facing the issues before us.

But we must also recognize that our public discourse has entered a new arena of willful misrepresentation. The dismissal of the dangers of human-induced climate change is the most egregious example of the repudiation of science for the sake of political expediency. President Trump routinely denies having said things that he has been recorded saying, and his mantra of complete denial when confronted with the facts is spreading to other politicians. From issues of sexual misconduct to votes against requiring insurance companies to protect those with pre-existing conditions, politicians have learned from this president that lying (loudly and repeatedly) works when the truth is inconvenient. Surely, educational institutions have as a core part of their mandate to expose falsehoods, to gain agreement on the facts of a matter and to leverage those facts for better public policy.

In the summer of 2016, I wrote in these pages to urge those involved in higher education to join forces “to stop the Trumpian calamity.” I spoke out on electoral politics at that time with great reluctance because I do not think it appropriate for university presidents publicly to back one candidate or another. But over the last few years, from Hungary to Brazil, from Italy to the United Sates, we have seen the intensification of authoritarian, populist political forces around the world. They all demonize a group of outsiders, and they all substitute appeals to myth and violence for inquiry and discussion.

We in higher education must not treat this intensification as a normal dimension of our public life. This political movement is antithetical to learning; it is anathema to research and teaching and to any possibilities for democracy. Our mission in higher education requires us to oppose it. This is not a call for partisan, political indoctrination. It is a call to preserve intellectual diversity and freedom of inquiry by standing up to the poisonous pollution of our public life.

Bio

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and author, most recently, of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.

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