The current wave of censurings, cancelings, dismissals, silencings and censorship in the academy actually has viable arguments behind it. These include the emotional safety and comfort of students and faculty, the desire for solidarity, the real menace of extremist and violent subversion, the protection of chosen identities, the dream of a harmonious human society, etc. On the other side there are also powerful arguments, including such liberal principles as freedom of speech, the need for vigorous argument and debate to find the truth, training in the art of persuasion, the comradeship of debate, and the pursuit of evidence however unpalatable if real facts are to be established, etc.
How do we resolve these respectable countering claims? It turns out that in a way we in America have already done so. It’s our hoary and honored distinction between religious universities and secular ones. Though of course there are many gradations between these pure categories, the principles that support our permitting both to exist are clear. As long as the choice of attendance is free, we and our courts hold that a religious school can require certain beliefs and commitments of its students and faculty, and a secular school can permit free speech and expression that can be offensive or blasphemous to believers.
Why not resurrect this distinction–for schools that set limits on the ideological content of speech and schools that do not? With religious schools, the student and beginning professor know that there are lines they cannot cross without offending the values and the feelings of their community. With a true secular school, the student and professor know that within the bounds of the nation’s law, no speculation, hypothesis, unearthing of awkward evidence, challenging of claimed evidence, logical disproof of existing moral customs, etc, is forbidden. One must like it or lump it, take it and dish it out.
Now of course this is an idealized picture. As we know, there are more or less religious schools across the country that preserve great traditions of reasoned debate and turn out students with cheerfully contrarian views and a very fine sense of objective fact. And there are many technically secular schools that inculcate a fairly narrow set of absolute beliefs and unchallengeable doctrines, with a curated set of contextless facts to support them. And the picture is complicated by the fact that our democratically elected government rightly believes that education is in the national interest and needs to be supported, but that it is not its business to support religious institutions. It backs up this principle by not taxing religious property, giving religious institutions at least the ability to support themselves. Government also in principle forbids institutionalized religious indoctrination in state schools. This compromise has worked out well. American universities are among the best in the world, and religious strife–one the greatest killers on the planet–is rare on campus.
But at present it is clear that the compromise is breaking down. Many secular state universities and state-supported colleges–as well as many private secular universities that profess religious and ideological freedom–are now on the official and public level enforcing distinct and unmistakable sets of moral beliefs, among them “woke” theories of social construction and identity. For the most part those beliefs, if chosen and held by an individual, would be arguable and even beneficial, like religious moral rules; but they are challengeable, and even meaningless if they are enforced. Moral choice is by nature free. Like religious dogmas, ideological group commitments tend, if unchallenged, to become caricatures of themselves and the excuse for sadistic condemnation, character assassination, and show trials–and a useful path to promotion. In religious universities today such corruptions are controlled partly by the antiquity of its agreed set of rules, partly by the competing presence of secular schools whose reputation for free thought they covet. But no such constraint exists in secular schools that have actually become ideologically committed on an institutional level–that is, no longer secular institutions–while still claiming the support of the secular state.
Not that there is anything wrong with an ideologically committed school or university, as long as it abides by the law. Great religious foundations have created extraordinary monuments of knowledge within them. Bright minds can easily couch world-changing ideas in terms that placate the genial and lax inquisitors. But the ideological university in the guise of a free university is a problem. Students and faculty may be buying a pig in a poke, or to change the metaphor, may be victims of bait-and-switch. And they can find themselves the focus of a new kind of witch-hunt.
My proposed solution is this. Perhaps we should apply the same standards to the ideological university as to the religious university. Perhaps a university’s faculty and students should have a vote on whether it wants to be a purely secular free speech university or an ideologically committed university with the same legal advantages and disadvantages of a religious university. Then those in the minority could leave for an institution better fitted to them.
In the free university no student or faculty member could be disciplined, fired, or expelled for the expression of ideas. Certainly no crying of fire in a crowded theater–there are plenty of sensible rules in the nation’s law that draw the line. And the ideological university would be permitted to police offensive speech, inappropriate ideas, the presence of invited speakers, and the strict application of behavioral rules between people who differ by sex, gender choice, race, etc. Since its claim, like the religious school’s, is to obey rules that are higher than the rules of the state, it might lose state economic support but gain exemption from taxes.
Then students and faculty would know clearly what they would be getting into, and choose where to learn and teach on that basis. Nonconformists could gravitate toward free schools where they could trust that they would not be fired for controversial ideas; and social idealists could find committed schools with a safe haven for a loving community of like souls. And the clear distinction, as between the old religious and secular schools, might spur competition between the free and the committed institutions and advance the creation of knowledge.