2016 FOURTH PLACE ESSAY

The Assault on Intellectual Freedom

by David Oks, Age 14
Submitting Teacher: Stacy Van Beek


When Omar Mahmood, a student at the University of Michigan, decided he wasn’t content with the orthodoxy of political correctness present on his campus, he did what citizens are encouraged to do: He made his voice heard. But after he expressed his dissent through a satirical op-ed in the school’s conservative-leaning alternative publication, The Michigan Review, lampooning trigger warnings and microaggressions, he faced harsh punishment. The mainstream campus newspaper fired him from his position as a columnist. A group of students vandalized his apartment’s doorway, calling him “violent” and demanding that he leave the school.

The attacks against Mahmood are only a small part of a colossal assault on intellectual freedom taking place on college campuses across America. Students with Puritanesque toleration for opposing viewpoints who’ve been “protected” for much of their lives from conflicting opinions descend on college campuses have spread the belief that, in the words of John Stossel in his book No, They Can’t, “some ideas are beyond the pale and must not be heard.” These students have embraced a strict orthodoxy of opinions on politics, race, economics, and government, categorically rejecting any nonconforming opinions as “offensive” or accusing them of fostering a “hostile environment.” Oftentimes, students call for the university to suppress undesired speech on their behalf through censorship or punishments for the holders of intolerable” views. This means that students with beliefs outside the orthodoxy are denied the option to voice their views, that a free exchange and debate of ideas—once considered essential to the learning process—is stifled, and that essential liberties, such as the freedom of speech, are dishonored. The belief that the freedom of speech may be overridden by a fictional right not to be offended is dangerous for the country’s civic future and in total opposition to the immortal principles upon which the American republic was founded. It is disturbing to see the country's future leaders embrace that view.

The effect of this wave of politically-correct censorship on the higher education system has been chilling. Many educational institutions which once venerated the freedom of thought and aspired to train thinkers willing to depart from the norm have capitulated to the demands of students desiring speech police, preventing debate, once considered a hallmark of a democratic education, and punishing those who speak out. American universities were originally envisioned as training grounds for civic life in a democracy, places where students are encouraged to argue and challenge established norms. Thomas Jefferson, upon founding the University of Virginia, even declared that it would “be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind”—a call to use higher education to promote intellectual liberty if there ever was one.

Yet today, as censorship of undesirable opinions finds itself in vogue, universities have bowed to what Stossel called “the tyranny of the easily offended." Although this is usually done with good intentions, the results have been disastrous. Conservative-leaning students have found their viewpoints banned. Certain words are declared “off-limits.” Speech codes, enumerating the ways in which students may not use their freedom of expression, are distributed by many college administrations.

The rising tide of regulating speech represents a worrying shift in American civic life. Universities have long been home to “marketplaces of ideas,” analogous to the economic free market, in which opinions and concepts compete unimpeded to decide which are superior. In a marketplace, students are expected to argue, to challenge established norms, to stand against the tide of public opinion when necessary. These marketplaces have prepared students for life in a country where a plethora of ideas, whether cultural, political, or economic, competed for superiority.

Similarly, in the past, figures holding starkly different opinions did not attempt to censor each other, but instead openly confronted the issues. For instance, James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, held a debate in 1965 about civil rights. More than a century earlier, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, holding sharply different views on the most hotly argued issue of the day, slavery, openly debated each other, astounding observers who saw the glory of an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in action.

The culture of censorship which has colonized college campuses across the nation poses a grave threat to the civic fabric of the United States. Today, many universities seem more aligned with authoritarian traditions of not questioning orthodoxy and not exploring alternative views than with the American idea of intellectual freedom. This will produce a generation of college graduates who have been taught not to think independently, as one should in a democracy. Instead of exposing students to new views and allowing them to see the two perspectives present in all disagreements, bureaucrats and activists have made it their mission to insulate students from hearing perspectives not in harmony with theirs. They have turned their back on the marketplace of ideas, on the “illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

 

We, as the inheritors of a legacy of freedom and dissent, ought not to abandon the essence of the American experiment because we have grown scared of other ideas, censorious in service of the politics of taking offense. The cost of living in a society where ideas are unrestrained and exchanged freely is encountering and confronting beliefs one finds offensive and holds utterly despicable. But it is a cost that all Americans should be more than willing to pay. The alternative, after all, is far worse.

 

Bibliography:

"The Coddling of the American Mind," by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic

No, They Can't: Why Government Fails—But Individuals Succeed, by John Stossel (Published by Threshold Editions)

"Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say," by Jonathan Chait in New York

"The Regrettable Decline of Higher Learning," by Victor Davis Hanson in National Review Online