Free Speech Cannot Save Us

Unless they acknowledge a divine transcendence, our universities, like our culture at large, are sentenced to pointless “debate,” full of sound and fury, no matter how free our speech is. The marketplace of ideas alone cannot save education.

Many observers of the contemporary university note that the faculty’s role in its governance has declined, while the number of its administrators—especially administrators for student affairs, inclusion, and diversity—seems to grow endlessly.

Despite the obvious harmful effects of administrative bloat on tuition, curriculum, and governance, its most serious cost is to the very purpose of the university. As José A. Cabranes notes in the Wall Street Journal, as “the new species of bureaucrats and student activists have come to dominate the university, they have reshaped it in their image. Whenever possible, they have sought to muddle the distinction between intellectual deliberation and political action—thus making certain thoughts, like certain deeds, into crimes.” Consequently, the university, which had as its purpose “to instruct students in methods and habits of free inquiry,” has lost its way; for “it is difficult, after all, to obtain the truth while you are being bludgeoned into submission.”

A Marketplace of Ideas?

Given the threats to free inquiry, I understand those who envision the university as a “marketplace of ideas,” where students “can encounter differing ideas and beliefs through discussion and debate.” As in the economy (the claim goes) the competition of ideas and arguments, when free from undue regulation or censorship, allows the best “product” to win—to be freely accepted as true. Truth will out, the best argument will win, and the irrational will be exposed, if only we provide a fair and free playing field for debate and discussion.

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is a foundational document for this approach; it holds that the free competition of ideas best allows for the discovery of truth. After all, Mill says, even bad and false ideas help us discover truth: when we refute them we see more clearly the way forward; and falsehoods in themselves always reveal some partial, incomplete aspect of the truth from which we can learn.

In some ways, Plato beat Mill to the punch on this one when he said that ideas had to be subjected to dialectic—the famous method of “elenchus”—by which Socrates asks questions of his interlocutor in order to reveal the latter’s self-contradictions or ignorance. Such conversation cannot thrive in the face of speech codes, safe spaces, Athenian juries, or bureaucratic manipulation; indeed, the Socratic method cannot even work if the interlocutor wishes to give long speeches rather than short answers to questions.

Still, Plato was far more attuned than Mill ever was to the weak points of his method; for Plato knew that free exchange, while necessary, was not remotely sufficient to bring about truth. Time and again, Plato reveals his conception of the ethics of discourse, either explicitly or indirectly through the characters and action of his dialogues. He insists on discussion rather than on making speeches—on good will, truth-seeking, and honesty, including honesty about one’s own ignorance and inconsistency. Noticeably, Plato is not satisfied if a conversation is merely free of external censorship; for him, the ethics of discourse also requires that the interlocutors possess the right sort of character.

Real Debate Requires Responsible, Committed Debaters

Eric Voegelin (1901–85) especially understood Plato’s concern about people who cannot be reasoned with either due to their vice or, more troublesomely, to their ideology. Vice might make a thinker lazy, or boastful, or unwilling to admit error; but ideology, according to Voegelin, is a revolt against reality itself. Debate with an ideologue is all but impossible; because, in such debate:

[T]he exchange of argument [is] disturbed by a profound difference of attitude [between the interlocutors] with regard to all fundamental questions of human existence. . . . Rational argument could not prevail because the partner to the discussion [does] not accept as binding for himself the matrix of reality in which all specific questions concerning our existence as human beings are ultimately rooted.

Such ideologues, says Voegelin, citing the novelist Robert Musil, exist in “Second Reality,” or ideological fantasy; for them “the universe of rational discourse collapses.” They suffer, Voegelin says in another place (again citing Musil), not from ordinary, honest stupidity—to which all are prone—but from a “higher stupidity,” which is more like a self-imposed blindness than slowness of wit.

Voegelin suggests that Mill has regard for the freedom to discuss but overlooks “the readiness to discuss.” After all, many are free to debate but have little readiness to do so, while in our universities, the readiness is so lacking that freedom is threatened.

Mill, according to Voegelin, assumed that society was made of responsible individuals, who would be committed to the freedom and duty of rational discussion, and would thus be ready to discuss. This is an optimistic assumption, and Mill does recognize the fragility of liberty; but he judges that any real danger “could be warded off through the medium of rational discussion.” The solution to the tenuousness of free inquiry, in other words, is more free inquiry. So long as society is formed by “rational individuals,” civilization is secured, and the university along with it. Plato, however, knew “it does not follow that, because man is by nature responsive to reason, he will, in fact, allow himself to be governed by it.” It is possible for reason itself to be freely overthrown for “the Second Reality” or “higher stupidity.”

One Can Be Reasonable Only If One Acknowledges Divine Transcendence

Voegelin is not using some self-serving sophistical ploy to claim victory over his “ignorant” opponents; he’s following Plato’s analysis rather closely. Plato distinguishes simple imprudence from “ignorance of the soul regarding its relations to God,” or its ultimate end. Average ignorance causes people to act poorly and foolishly in this or that matter; but it takes the higher stupidity not to know what we are for—to be “closed to divine Being” and shut off from purpose and transcendence—to be adrift and aimless in a void and formless universe.

Reason is the mark of human order; but reason, in part, is one’s consciousness of being pulled by and toward the Divine. Higher stupidity is not merely an incorrect doctrine, or a heresy: it is a lack of that experience that distinguishes humans from other creatures. It is to sink into pure immanence and materiality—to possess reason no longer, even if one retains a power to calculate. Many animals can calculate their way through the maze to food; but very few—perhaps only we humans—are marked by reason: the ability to experience consciously both the wondrous mystery of existence and the stark challenge of understanding our place and meaning in that existence.

When humans revolt against transcendence, they revolt against reason, are “plunged into confusion,” and become “incapable of recognizing the order of existence and of society.” They struggle to “behave rationally in the ordinary affairs of daily life,” because they lack any direction, purpose, or normativity toward which to move or by which to judge. They are like a person adrift in space—without horizon, without a sense of up or down, left or right, forward or backward. Which way to go? They become lost, and their actions become marked by folly and irrationality—not because of slowness of mind, but because of the sort of stupidity that makes one a fool.

The wise person possesses “knowledge of the fulfillment of human destiny in the beyond.” Ignorance of this fulfillment is not your ordinary ignorance—nor ordinary stupidity—but foolishness: the state of ignorance about the fundamental human things, which is to say, the transcendent things. To be ignorant of the transcendent is to be foolish regarding the human, and the “rational discussion of order in the existence of man and society is possible only under the condition of knowing about transcendent fulfillment.” When such knowledge is lacking, discussion will be dominated by a kind of ignorant foolishness, evidenced by “a lack of readiness to discuss, the fundamental reason for which is the unwillingness of the interlocutors to be drawn into the problematic of the transcendent.”

Freedom Is Not Enough


Our universities exhibit the symptom of foolishness—a lack of readiness to discuss—but the cure is not more freedom. So long as universities suffer from the higher stupidity, freedom will not bring about reasonableness.

Insisting on procedural rules of communication cannot but devolve—at best—“into a mere rhetorical debate.” And even if that rhetorical debate has the patina of rationality (like a policy debate that lists pros and cons, costs and benefits), this is all noise and nonsense if the costs and benefits are not themselves grounded in the knowledge of that in which our transcendent fulfillment consists. Debates will have the appearance of debate, but they will lack ordering principles that make the debate rational rather than merely arranged by convention.

Proceduralism cannot of itself surmount this problem; for procedures cannot safeguard the debaters’ willingness or ability to debate, no matter how free the debate may appear. One is willing and able to debate only insofar as one has knowledge of—or at least a searching wonder about—transcendence. Absent that attitude to transcendence, only a clash of opinions—a struggle of wills—remains. A fool, while he may maintain both the freedom and procedures of debate, “has lost the use of reason for the basic questions of order.”

In short, unless they acknowledge a divine transcendence, our universities, like our culture at large, are sentenced to pointless “debate,” full of sound and fury, no matter how free our speech is. The marketplace of ideas alone cannot save education.

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