Let’s Reject This Endorsement of Free Speech on Campus

Today in the Wall Street Journal, an op-ed by Michael Bloomberg and Charles Koch explains “Why Free Speech Matters on Campus.”

Many conservatives might jump to endorse this article as a welcome indictment of liberal censorship and bias by two powerful campus donors. But that would be a mistake.  Look more closely at what Bloomberg and Koch are saying.  

Whether in economics, morality, politics or any other realm of study, progress has always depended upon human beings having the courage to challenge prevailing traditions and beliefs.

Got that?  Prevailing traditions and beliefs are a hindrance to progress. They are the obstacles to overcome. We must stand up to them, and that means saying things people are going to find uncomfortable. Bloomberg and Koch say nothing about education as the focusing of young minds on religious, political, and artistic traditions.  Nothing about how you cannot “challenge prevailing traditions and beliefs” intelligently until you have studied those things.  No, it’s all about innovation and reform and progress.

Bloomberg and Koch’s examples show how misguided is the approach.

Many ideas that the majority of Americans now hold dear–including that all people should have equal rights, women deserve the right to vote, and gays and lesbians should be free to marry whom they choose–were once unpopular minority views that many found offensive.

This is the standard justification, and it’s a misleading one.  It overlooks a giant contrary category: things that came along and were hailed as forms of progress but sooner or later exposed as terrible mistakes.  Some instances: early-20th-century eugenics, open classrooms in secondary education, the destruction of Penn Station . .

Bloomberg and Koch compound their blindness to the dangers of progress in the very next sentence.

They are now widely accepted because people were free to engage in a robust dialogue with their fellow citizens.

To claim that the same-sex marriage controversy has been settled through a “robust dialogue” is to rewrite history.  Has any conflict in recent times been less civil and open than this one? 

The progressives on this issue have used tactics of shaming, demonization, intimidation, and litigation, not those of debate.  There is no tolerance for differing opinions, which Bloomberg and Koch hail as a proper effect of liberal education.  They believe in a society in which “individuals need not fear reprisal, harassment or intimidation for airing controversial opinions.”  We don’t have one right now, not on this issue.

The problem in Bloomberg and Koch’s declaration is a discursive one.  They praise progress, in the process setting the status quo as a roadblock to it.  But what, then, about people who believe in the status quo?  And what if the conflict turns upon deeply held beliefs, perhaps religious ones, that won’t be managed and accommodated so smoothly by a marketplace of ideas. 

Let’s face it: some commitments run deeper than that.  Moral positions can be visceral.  Bloomberg and Koch think that “open minds and rational discourse” may proceed if we only show more tolerance. 

But to Bloomberg and Koch tolerance is simply a pathway to shedding principles important millions of students.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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5 thoughts on “Let’s Reject This Endorsement of Free Speech on Campus

  1. There is much very dangerously wrong with the Bloomberg/ Koch perspective…

    To add to Prof. Bauerlein’s critique:
    B/K tell us “Whether in economics, morality, politics or any other realm of study, PROGRESS has always depended upon human beings having the courage to challenge prevailing traditions and beliefs.” (emphasis added). Not only is this wrong because it is founded upon the very mistaken notion that “prevailing traditions” are ‘less progressive’. …but it is also critically wrong because it is equally based upon the very dubious contention that there is, in fact, such a thing as “progress” in the development of economics, morality, politics (or anything else) over time. There is not. Was the morality of Hitler superior to the morality of Augustine? Is the morality we see demonstrated daily in Syria elevated above that seen in 19th century Ohio? History, despite MLK’s fervent hope that the “moral arc of the universe was long but bends towards justice” does not progress, day by day, towards a an increasingly more moral, more just, more ethical place. It simply moves. History is simply the record of human behavior. which has itself remained remarkably constant across thousands of generations: full of love, hate, envy, fear, cruelty, generosity, self-sacrifice, greed, and selfishness (to name but a few of it’s quite typical attributes).

    B/K’s perspective would also seem to implicitly depend upon 1) the equally twisted idea that Truth is relative, and entirely a function of robust dialogue (or at least a function of whose voice in that dialogue is the loudest and most heavily funded) and 2) that this ‘progressive truth’ is a derivative of the majority consensus derived (or manufactured) from that so-called ‘dialogue’. Thus their observation, marked by Bauerlein, that the Same Sex Marriage ruling is a victory for ‘right thinking’ people who value ‘progress’. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    That most Germans (or at least the majority of loud & media-enabled Germans) came to believe that the Jewish people were subhuman, the scrourge of the earth and the source of every historical German defeat/weakness does not make such a belief true, let alone right — it simply represents the triumph of evil & untruth. As Goebbels himself said, ““It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”

    So no — ‘robust dialogue’…filled with loud & authoritative national media voices does not guarantee ‘progress’ nor does it reveal Truth, particularly if its volume and viciousness are entirely a product of a political agenda. Nor does the abandonment of past beliefs and traditions indicate that we are moving, progressively, ever closer to Truth — though clearly it indicates we are moving closer to the Future envisioned by those who would enthusiastically abandon both baby & bathwater.

  2. I am amazed that I would agree with a Koch brother, but here I do. First contrary to what the commentator thinks( did he actually give thought to what the said?) Bloomberg and Koch do not advocate trashing tradition but rather contesting cultural imperatives that have functioned to marginalise folks on the basis of sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. It is imperative that the goal of University is the development of critical thinkers not “yes” men or women concerning traditional or modern cultural beliefs. The idea of University is to engage in critical discourse and quite frankly suspend one’s disbelief. Second, for the commentator to claim that the discourse was short circuited regarding same sex marriage is not only absurd but intellectually dishonest. Same sex marriage has been debated in ancient times, medieval as well as post-modern America. Indeed, it is tied to homosexuality and its criminalisation, which has been debated in the US since before WWII. It appears Bauerlein knows not what he is writing about, thus leaving us with a rather thin commentary about a serious and substantial subject.

  3. The WSJ piece is one of those articles that claims to be the solution when it is part of the problem. You’re my hero today for pointing out just how twisted it is.

  4. I think you’re missing the point of their rhetoric. The only reason they’re emphasizing liberal causes is that free speech is currently threatened from the left. Bloomberg and Koch are framing their appeal accordingly. (That said, I do agree with you that recent “progress” is not best understood as the result of free speech.)

    The weakness of your argument is that it presents (if I understand you correctly) conservatism as a defense of the “status quo”. But surely conservatives can’t be content with leaving campus culture — or the entire culture for that matter — where it is right now? I think Bloomberg and Koch disagree about where to go from here. What they agree about is how to get there. Through free and open inquiry and debate. Wherever it leads.

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