The Train Needs A New Track

I woke up one morning a week or so ago with Twitter going crazy over some very nasty news out of Evergreen College in Washington State. The by-then-gone-viral video featured my friend George Bridges, President of Evergreen, under vicious attack by a swarm of angry students. You could hear things like “f *** you, George. Why don’t you just shut up, George. You talk too much”—this to their college president. It made my heart ache. It almost doesn’t matter, in my opinion, what the issue is—this sort of disrespect and disruption has never been the way the university carries out its purpose.

Then on Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago The Wall Street Journal published an admirable piece by Laurie L. Patton, the President of Middlebury College. Middlebury received wide attention when a group of students shouted down, then physically attacked, an invited speaker, Charles Murray. The students deemed the opinions and research of the speaker unacceptable. The faculty member who was hosting and introducing Murray was taken to the hospital after the attack.

President Patton’s article is a sincere search for guiding principles that might rescue the university from this sorry state of affairs. She says of the Middlebury incident that

a rash of similarly disturbing incidents on other campuses this spring has reminded us of the fragility of the principle of free expression and why all of our institutions, but especially our institutions of higher learning, must be vigilant in safeguarding it.

We need the “spirit of a robust public square.” “Educational institutions have a primary obligation to foster open and civil discourse,” with an emphasis on open and civil, now threatened. 

But here is President Patton’s telling conclusion that gives me pause:

Committed speech, reasoned speech, courageous speech, speech countering other speech—these are essential to higher education and to sound democratic politics. It is simply not acceptable to shut down speakers and interfere with the right of others to hear them, learn from them and challenge them. Only when we’re able to listen to each other, across our many differences, will we begin to discover, for our own times, what we are still capable of loving in common.

Well, hooray, of course, for this now-common mantra for free and diverse speech. But it’s that “what we are still capable of loving in common” that sparks my skepticism. There is very little we love in common, in the university or in our society. And the university cannot survive without something we love in common. Of course we have worked hard, especially in the Western world, to place our highest authority on the individual. The result is to splinter us beyond belief. We no longer share anything called truth, not political or ideological truth, not cultural truth, not personal truth, certainly not spiritual truth.

So protecting free and diverse speech as the highest purpose of the university is sure to crash and burn with more of the same. We need some notion of what is true and good and beautiful to pull us together. We need the courage to talk about the content of our speech. It can’t be just a matter of honoring everyone’s opinion or respecting everyone’s identity or giving everyone a chance to speak. If we can’t restore some notion in common of what is true, the university is headed for a train wreck. I’m afraid it’s already barreling down the track.

I am reminded of St. Augustine. As a brilliant young man in the fourth century he aspired to the very respectable vocation as a Roman rhetorician, a writer and speaker, schooled in all of the “textbooks on eloquence.” He adored the great Cicero, the chief practitioner of eloquent speech.

But what was great speech, he began to ask, apart from truth? Speech alone would become hollow, ultimately frivolous, even destructive:

See how the human soul lies weak and prostrate when it is not yet attached to the solid rock of truth. The winds of gossip blow from the chests of people ventilating their opinions; so the soul is carried about and turned, twisted and twisted back again. The light is obscured from it by a cloud, the truth is not perceived. . . . Fine style does not make something true, nor has a man a wise soul because he has . . . well-chosen eloquence.

The university in the West was not established simply for speech. No, speech must be anchored by an arduous pursuit of what is true and good and beautiful. Protecting everyone’s right to speak is not enough. We stand at this crossroads for the great American university: Can we ever again find what draws us together in our common humanity? What is required is a massive cultural shift, but without it, we can only expect more wrecks like the ones at Evergreen and Middlebury. I suspect the train needs a new track.