Putting The Term Liberal Back Into Liberal Arts

I am excited about an event I am participating in today. I and several other professors will be spending the summer discussing Richard Sennett’s book, “The New Capitalism.” I am enjoying the book, having read through it once and now working through it again, and look forward to our conversation. I would say I am the token conservative in this discussion, which is fine, because I am not that conservative anyway, but I am right of center. I believe in the free market and its power to create social good. However, I am a realist, and can see how an unfettered economic system can be unfair. But there will be more on that later. What I do want to discuss today is what will be occurring today during our meeting from 1:30 to 2:30 pm. There will be free speech and meaningful dialog, which is critical within any democracy.

Previously I wrote about Brandeis University banning Somali born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali from being its commencement speaker due to anti-Islamic teachings. I am not too sure on the specifics associated with Ali’s anti-Islamic comments, but I think we can assume it had to do with the treatment of women. Brandeis stated their reason for banning her involved the university’s core values.

I am in the academic world, and I know that many faculty would consider themselves left of center, but all of us should be afraid about the tendency of academics to shout down “the other.” When we start thinking the other person has no right to speak, then democracy is in trouble. If this happened once, I may not pay attention, but the fact that it is happening over and over again concerns me.

Don’t get me wrong, I could care less if Rush Limbaugh or even Tom Lykis is banned from being a commencement speaker. But the people that are withdrawing because others want to silence their voice is downright scary.

Smith College, this week, announced the “withdrawal of Christine Lagarde, the French head of the International Monetary Fund” as commencement speaker. 480 individuals with the College felt Lagarde was “associated with imperialistic and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Huh! Christine Lagarde is one of the world’s most accomplished women, and she is fostering systems that oppress women? In how many different languages can we say silly?

I wish it ended here, but it doesn’t. Haverford College lost its commencement speaker as a result of an inaccurate assumption about an event on the Berkeley campus in 2011 when this person was its chancellor. Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of US Berkeley, has been the “defender of minority students, the LGBT community, and undocumented immigrants,” in other words someone who is politically correct, yet the graduating seniors did not want him to speak at their commencement. It appears in 2011 the Berkeley police “used force against Occupy protestors in Sproul Plaza.” If Mr. Birgeneau was allowed to speak he would have been required to meet nine conditions, once of which would have been reparations to the “victims of police violence.”

The shunning of conservative views on college and university campuses has become a reality. I agree that some conservative views should be shunned, but our democracy stays healthy when there is a plethora of voices that comet together to create a common path. This is not the elimination of the other, but an exploration of shared meaning through dialog. I agree with David Henninger when he describes what he sees as the problem with not allowing the other to speak. “This shunning and isolation of conservative teachers by their left-wing colleagues (with many liberals silent in acquiescence) weakened the foundational ideas of American universities – freedom of inquiry and the speech rights of the first amendment.” Thus, because of the narrowing view of what is considered legitimate truth, even one of their own “must sign a Maoist self-criticism to be able to speak at Haverford. Meet America’s Red Guards.”

Although I don’t agree with Henninger when he calls professors nutty and loonie, or that in the name of progress professors are dumbing down courses; I do agree with him when he says “One might conclude: Who cares? Parents are beginning to see that this is a $65,000-a-year scam that won’t get their kids a job in an economy that wants quantification skills. Parents and students increasingly will flee the politicized nut-houses for apolitical MOOC’s – massive open online courses.” I don’t want that, and the faculty I know don’t want that either.

Just because I don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to tell me about their beliefs. Who’s to say that I am right and the other is wrong. As much as I’d like to think I am always right, I know I am not. Thus, I read to draw better and stronger conclusions. Maybe colleges and universities need to return to the days gone by, and return to what liberal arts is supposed to be.

And that is my thought for the day!

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