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A Campus Free Speech Case Study Emerges In Vermont

Harry Zieve Cohen

Vermont’s elite Middlebury College is gearing up for a test of its commitment to open discourse and free speech this week, when political scientist Charles Murray visits the school on Thursday. VT Digger reports:

The chair of the political science department at Middlebury College is defending the sponsorship of a controversial speaker invited to the campus next month despite “grave concerns” raised by some professors and students.

Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist and author, is scheduled to speak March 2 at the college about his book “Coming Apart.” Murray is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, DC. He was invited to the campus by a Middlebury student club under the AEI banner.

Some faculty and students have objected; one department chair criticized Murray as a “pseudoscientist” while the head of the political science department defended co-sponsoring the event, saying Murray’s talk was of value to a significant portion of the campus population. A group of faculty opposing the talk plan to meet Monday.

As must be expected every time a speaker to the right of Noam Chomsky visits campuses these days, protests are being planned for the day of Murray’s visit and dozens of recent alumni have signed a petition condemning him. Fliers have been circulating on campus accusing Murray of denying the “humanity” of persons of color in a book he coauthored called “The Bell Curve”, which analyzed sophisticated but controversial data sets which purported to show that black Americans and poor Americans have lower average IQs than wealthier and whiter Americans.

Middlebury College will not be paying Murray to speak; a student chapter of the American Enterprise Institute is using its own funds to bring him to Vermont. Middlebury’s Political Science department, however, has agreed to promote and co-sponsor the event. Department chair Bertram Johnson says he asks two basic questions when considering whether to sponsor a lecture: “Is it related to political science and is there sufficient interest that it would generate student interest and attendance?” Meanwhile, Middlebury College President Laurie Patton plans to attend the lecture because, as her spokesman put it, “Our view is that if we stand for anything, it’s the free exchange of ideas.”

Good for Johnson and Patton. This is precisely the kind of statement that administrators should be making in favor of open political discourse. Others, meanwhile, can protest if they would like to, but we hope they will give Murray a chance to speak. As the prominent liberal commentator Van Jones eloquently put it earlier this week, administrators and faculty who restrict speech on campus and the students who demand such restrictions “are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world, that is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous.”

It also encourages ignorance, which is fitting given that the subject of Murray’s lecture is his 2012 book “Coming Apart”. In the book, Murray argues that upper middle class whites have no awareness of how most of the country lives, what it believes, or the challenges their fellow citizens face with drugs, family breakdown, economic headwinds, and declining social trust.

Students at elite colleges like Middlebury would benefit from considering Murray’s claims, and the United States would be better off as well. Take the heroin epidemic, the American capital of which for fifteen years has arguably been Rutland, VT — just 30 miles south of Middlebury. In a depressing indication of intellectual and moral shriveling, students at Middlebury basically ignored what was going on in Rutland until the issue made it into national headlines, spending far more time on the inability of the small percentage of Americans who identify as transgender and currently go to elementary school to use the bathrooms they prefer. This is about more than Middlebury. It is damaging to the country that highly-privileged self-described “global citizen” students and faculty don’t put much energy into understanding and improving the deteriorating condition of communities just down the road because they have their eyes set on sexier crises.

Reading “Coming Apart” might have opened professors’ and students’ eyes to the challenges their white rural neighbors were facing. In fact, for students who want to understand How We Got Trump, “Coming Apart” is probably the most prescient and insightful guide out there. It’s not a stretch to suggest that had more people involved with Hillary Clinton’s campaign taken Charles Murray seriously before the election, she might have won.

There’s something more fundamental at stake here. Defending free speech on campus is about encouraging adherence to the founding principle of open society, it’s about learning to stay calm in the face of adversity, it’s about ensuring that students have a chance to master the art of persuasion; but it’s also about acknowledging that if you give people you don’t like a hearing, you might actually learn something. Human beings are complicated, and no one is right about everything or in complete accordance with any other person on all issues. One very practical defense of “the free exchange of ideas” is that it makes everyone smarter and more sophisticated advocates for the causes they hold dear.

Today’s college students have no sense of how clueless and condescending and unconvincing many of them sound to the rest of the world. One job of an academic institution should be to help them understand that.

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