Now that the liberals who were once insurgent voices in the undergraduate student body are the presidents and deans of American universities, they’ve decided it is high time for those universities to reevaluate their outdated devotion to freedom of speech. The proper modern university, they believe, is a serenity-zone where students can meditate on the evils of capitalism undisturbed – unless they accidentally wander into Texas Tech’s free-speech gazebo.
The occasional catastrophe arises when some loose cannon invites a conservative to speak on campus. But the administration usually catches the slipup in time, and cancels the invitation before the conservative speaker can do any damage.
George F. Will is a recent recipient of academia’s new highest honor: disinvitation. Scripps decided that a June 6 Washington Post piece in which Will asserted that “when [colleges] make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate” made him too controversial to appear on campus, and chose to spare its students their tears.
Instead, Will spoke Wednesday evening at the inaugural Disinvitation Dinner in Manhattan, hosted by the William F Buckley Jr Program at Yale, itself the brainchild of founder and executive director Lauren Noble. The program is devoted to intellectual diversity at Yale, and upset plenty of New Haven serenity-zoners last year when it invited Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak on campus. Hirsi Ali was not disinvited, but that was not for lack of imaginative attempts – and she had recently been barred from Brandeis, which went a step further by revoking the offer of an honorary degree. The Disinvitation Dinner is a platform for speakers who have not been allowed to deliver their remarks on campus.
This, for academia, is what academics might call a “teachable moment.” Intellectual debate will not cease just because universities refuse to host it. It will instead move to a broader and more intellectually serious audience.
Will speaks in a funny, low-key, aw-shucks style that captivates the room. It is hard to say whether he is right that the First Amendment has never been under greater threat, but it is certainly true that American universities are embarrassingly straightforward in declaring that the concept of free and open debate terrorizes them.
Their strain of thinking, Will says, has a long history in academia and was originally imported from Bismarckian Germany by admiring intellectuals such as Woodrow Wilson. The theory is that citizens’ hearts and minds are – just like their money – the product of society as a whole and therefore the responsibility of the only truly pan-societal institution, the government. People are perpetual infants in the care of the enlightened intellectuals, who will tell them they can say and do in exchange for protection from unpleasant thoughts and experiences.
But the Disinvitation Dinner is a welcome reminder that intellectual discussion, debate, and the inquisitive mind are not dead in America – it’s just hard to find on campus.