Free speech on campus: Is the argument really about the purpose of college?

Students at various American colleges are asserting a right not to hear anything that upsets them. I’m wondering if the reason the “free speech” and “no hurtful speech” groups can’t agree is that they disagree about the purpose of college.

Consider this open letter from a bunch of old people who work at, or used to work at, Yale. They start off by saying essentially the following: yes, being liberal/progressive is the only proper way to think, but Erika Christakis is actually a proper liberal with safe ideas. The old folks continue “While the university stands for many values, none is more central than the value of free expression of ideas.” The old people conclude by pointing out that the targets of student anger have been working “toward social justice,” e.g., by “making house visits to underserved populations.” So students should attack conservatives instead of the liberal Nicholas and Erika Christakis? (The letter does raise the question of what would happen if someone cracked into the Christakis set-top box and discovered that the social justice crusaders were secretly watching Fox News. Would they then no longer have a right to express their point of view regarding Halloween costumes?)

Let’s focus on the unsupported proposition that “none is more central than the value of free expression of ideas.” What if the young people who are protesting don’t agree? Perhaps to them Yale is a high-priced vocational program. What they want is to get a degree and then a high-paying job. Why should they be subjected to upsetting points of view during this process of vocational training, any more than they would if they went to tractor-trailer driving school? And if the students are going to prepare for work, where exercising freedom of speech will typically cost them their jobs, doesn’t it make sense to set up an environment where ThoughtCrime is punished?

The old people assume, without evidence, that Yale is the Agora of Socrates. Suppose that the students see it instead as an alcohol-soaked stepping stone to the Agora of the Kapeloi? Is that enough to account for the current discord on campus?



5 thoughts on “Free speech on campus: Is the argument really about the purpose of college?

  1. You could argue that if they want a drinking experience, they could just as well choose to skip university altogether and (according to you) find someone to have sex with and receive free cash until they die. Well, at least about half of them. But then again, the other half might stumble upon some upsetting points of view over a bunch of drinks. It just might end up in a fight outside the bar.

  2. Does anyone think that the SJW crowd are _also_ the set of people who major in ‘vocational’ training fields such as engineering, hard sciences, architecture, and so forth? Unlikely.

  3. Jernej: It is true that having sex with a dermatologist in neighboring Massachusetts would yield more after-tax cash than working at the average job held by a Yale graduate (see ). But I don’t think that is the right analysis. Fed on a constant diet of sample bias, e.g., from the Admissions Office highlighting the careers of the most successful Yale grads, the students are presumably mostly hoping for the 90th-percentile outcome for a Yale graduate, which would be a high-level job in the financial services industry. (The basis for this 90th-percentile hope is that they believe that the 90th-percentile outcome is the 70th-percentile outcome and people at the 50th percentile of ability imagine themselves to be at the 70th percentile (see for a classic paper in which Americans at the 12th percentile believed themselves to be in the 62nd).)

  4. What PN said – the protesters are not looking for jobs in the financial services industry – they are going to end up as professional grievance mongers (faculty in “studies” departments, working for think tanks and leftist publications, foundations, as “community activists”, etc.) and their protests are good practice for their future professions – even resume enhancing.

    It’s sad when the Stalinists come to get the Bolsheviks but this always happens – the revolution eats its own. I’ve been reading (actually mostly looking at the photos) in Red Color News Soldier, which is an amazing photographic record of the Cultural Revolution in China (I bought this book specifically to help understand how our own Cultural Revolution might proceed):

    Anyway, at a certain point in the narrative, the Cultural Revolutionaries, having already send to the countryside every conceivable capitalist roaders and counter-revolutionary, began to turn on themselves, with various factions accusing each other of insufficient loyalty to Mao, etc.

  5. Just a though. “Fed on a constant diet of sample bias, e.g., from the Admissions Office highlighting the careers of the most successful Yale grads”. People deal drugs in street corners based on the same bias (obviously they hope to build a multibillion drug cartel, but that’s irrelevant to the bias).

Comments are closed.