an empirical study of the humanities

The strongest arguments for the humanities are not about their effects. In order to decide whether any given outcome or impact is desirable, we must have a considered opinion of what is good. The humanities are the disciplines that address that question. We do not consider matters of value because doing so has good results; we do it to decide which results are good. So I have argued in a set of books and articles, the latest of which is Reforming the Humanities.

At the same time, however, the humanities are real practices and activities, taking time, costing money, and engaging people in the world. They exist in colleges and universities and also in k-12 schools and in a wide variety of community settings: book clubs, historical associations, museums, and the like. Participating in those activities and organizations will have effects, and it is worth studying them. The National Endowment for the Humanities does not conduct or support much empirical research on the humanities, and the whole topic is little studied. Yet the public humanities have reached substantial scale. As Elizabeth Lynn has written, “There are now 56 state humanities councils [that] receive more than one-third of all NEH program funds (over $40 million in FY2011) and they raise almost as many dollars in state and private funds. Each year they conduct many thousands of programs nation wide, providing what former NEH Chairman Jim Leach has called the ‘finest outreach education in the humanities in the world today.’”

As a contribution to the empirical research on the humanities, CIRCLE was very pleased to collaborate with Indiana Humanities on a study of the public humanities in the Hoosier State, as part of a national effort called “Humanities at the Crossroads.”

CIRCLE studies civic engagement, and the humanities do not overlap perfectly with civic activity. If we apply the ancient distinction between the active and the contemplative life, civic engagement is active, and sometimes the humanities are contemplative. Nevertheless, we saw a study of the humanities as relevant to our civic mission for two main reasons.

First, the public humanities give explicit attention to questions of ethics and values. That means they play an essential role in our civil society. As one participant in our study said, “I think that people appreciate the opportunity to come together and discuss pertinent topics. I do believe they see these activities as enrichment and community building opportunities.”

Second, people and organizations involved with the humanities form a network. Civil society is not just a list of separate organizations; the whole is (or should be) greater than the sum of its parts. Our study with Indiana Humanities was an opportunity to assess the whole network of public humanities organizations in one state, as a model for further research on the humanities and on other aspects of civic engagement.

Indiana HumanitiesBecause we took a network approach, we were able to reveal practically significant findings that would have been invisible otherwise. For example, we did not detect a statewide network organized around the humanities per se. As the small graphic to the left suggests, historical associations were more prominent and central. Although history is certainly one of the humanities, the lack of a network for the humanities (as a whole) presents challenges. For example, it makes it harder to connect the community-based humanities to universities, where literature is a much larger field than history. And it means that there is no coherent public voice for the humanities when they come under threat.

On the other hand, we found a large number of people and organizations concerned with the humanities in Indiana. By surveying an original sample known to Indiana Humanities and asking respondents to name others with whom they work, we found 2,147 individuals thought to be involved in the humanities within the state.  Of those, 390 gave us data on their own activities. They told us that the humanities are as popular as or even more popular than in the past and that their activities contribute to the “sense of place” that every community wants to enhance. We also found that humanities organizations in Indiana are lean and longstanding. More than 20 percent have been in existence for a century or more, but funding sources for the humanities are flat or in decline.

These and many other findings are presented in Felicia M. Sullivan, Nancy N. Conner, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Peter Levine and Elizabeth Lynn, “Humanities at the Crossroads: An Indiana Case Study” (CIRCLE, in collaboration with Indiana Humanities, 2014).

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the political advantages of organized religion

A piece of mine entitled “If Millennials Leave Religion, then What?” was published by the Religion News Service and picked up by the Washington Post yesterday. In it, I acknowledge the drawbacks of religion (viewed from a secular, political perspective), but I also catalog its advantages and argue that we don’t yet have a secular alternative that fills the traditional civic and political functions of churches and other religious congregations.

The piece had to be cut for length, which is fine (and I was able to select the cuts). But here, I would like to share one section that was deleted for length. In the published version, I alluded to the “depth” of religion. This is what I meant:

Mark Warren’s wonderful book about faith-based organizing, Dry Bones Rattling, begins with a vignette of Father Al Jost reading from the Book of Ezekiel to a group of Latina parishioners from poor neighborhoods in San Antonio. He chooses the version by African-American songwriter James Weldon Johnson: “Ezekiel connected dem dry bones.” Those lyrics derive from the Shakespearean poetry of the King James Version: “Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” Father Jost’s listeners might hear those resonances, or some might recall the Spanish (“¡Huesos secos!”) or the Latin of the Church in which they were raised.

In any case, the effects are palpable. The women are nervous before Father Jost speaks, but they respond “with a resounding ‘Amen’ and [stride] onto the stage to the sounds of a mariachi band … exuding confidence and collective determination.”

I propose that the original quality and the long history of Ezekiel’s poetry explain its political power. Secular equivalents must match this depth of resonance.

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the Midwestern public universities

(Madison, WI) I am here very briefly for a meeting, having come from this morning from Urbana/Champaign. My calendar for this six month period also shows days in Ann Arbor, Indianapolis, Bloomington, Chicago, and Detroit.

I don’t think the full glory of our Midwestern state universities is sufficiently appreciated. As an academic myself, I am prone to overestimate the importance of higher education. But in my mind, this region is a prairie studded with fine research institutions, like Greek city states or walled Renaissance towns, each boasting its famous thinkers and its cosmopolitan reach, each tied to the state that sustains it (and each, unfortunately, ready to send a mercenary army into symbolic battle with the others). Champaign, IL–just for example–houses the second biggest university library in America, whose 13 million volumes put it behind only Harvard. I am reminded of what the late Tony Judt once wrote:

By far the best thing about America is its universities. Not Harvard, Yale, e tutti quanti: though marvelous, they are not distinctively American—their roots reach across the ocean to Oxford, Heidelberg, and beyond. Nowhere else in the world, however, can boast such public universities. You drive for miles across a godforsaken midwestern scrubscape, pockmarked by billboards, Motel 6s, and a military parade of food chains, when—like some pedagogical mirage dreamed up by nineteenth-century English gentlemen—there appears…a library! And not just any library: at Bloomington, the University of Indiana boasts a 7.8-million-volume collection in more than nine hundred languages, housed in a magnificent double-towered mausoleum of Indiana limestone.

I am not as critical as Judt of the “scrubscape” and its people. But I agree that there’s something miraculous about these huge intellectual conglomerates rising from the fruited plain at the command of their state legislatures. Hopping around the region on commuter planes, you see professorial types with the New York Review spread on their knees and kids in college hoodies. I know that the universities’ funding is now mostly private and their students come increasingly from a global elite. I know they can be ivory towers or tools of Monsanto or the NSA. And yet, when people assess our era centuries from now, I think the great Midwestern public universities will warrant respect.

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Review of We Are the Ones

(Urbana/Champaign, IL) I am here to talk to a public audience about the arguments of We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. Meanwhile, I’d recommend Michael McQuarrie’s new review of my book (along with Ben Barber’s If Mayors Ran the World). It’s a good, thoughtful article. I appreciate his summary of my book and his partially critical response.

In the final chapter, I say that a movement for civic renewal should expect and welcome vibrant debate, and three likely topics of debate will be: whether economic reforms must precede political empowerment; the role of anger and conflict versus civility and consensus; and the ideological placement of the civic renewal movement (on the left, at the center, aiming for neutrality, or very broad). McQuarrie meets my hopes by staking out strong positions on exactly those issues.

He also reads me as taking the opposite position from him on some of these questions, when I was trying to be more neutral–considering both the pros and the cons and letting readers end where they like. Thus I would like to respond to certain portions of his review, not because they’re necessarily unfair, but as an opportunity to clarify my own views and engage the debate. For example:

The title of Levine’s book—We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For—is an inspiring call to action, and in this sense, at least, is similar to Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals (1946). However, rather than arguing for the possibilities of popular power, Levine is more interested in establishing the potential of citizen engagement for policy. Much of the book seems oriented around questions like “What are the measurable effects of community engagement on school effectiveness?” Levine’s form betrays a shift within the civic renewal movement, as it gains a foothold in foundations, academia, and even the White House. In the process it is becoming more communitarian in its celebration of the values and morality of citizens, while de-emphasizing popular authority and political sense. In terms of practice, contemporary advocates of the civic renewal movement emphasize correct deliberative communication among citizens as a solvent for all manner of political differences. In contrast, many in this tradition from Tocqueville on argued that civic virtue could only thrive in settings of relative socioeconomic equality. Challenging elites with popular power and cries that they are economic parasites, once central to populist activism and discourse, have been trimmed away in Levine’s account to make room for the idea that inequality can be overcome through a more virtuous and deliberative politics.

I do collect evidence that civic engagement boosts social outcomes. That’s because I don’t believe that many citizens, let alone powerful institutional actors, are ready to support active citizenship unless they believe it pays off in terms of better schools, safer streets, or a healthier environment.

I am a hard-headed researcher, so I will only claim that civic engagement has such benefits if it really does. In fact, instrumental arguments will carry us only so far. Civic engagement may not always improve communities. It may generate desirable outcomes, but less cheaply and reliably than other strategies would. It may boost outcomes (like “school effectiveness”) that we trivialize when we try to quantify them, thereby erasing deeply contested value questions. And it may degenerate into mere social hygiene if it is viewed as a tool for social improvement rather than a right of democratic citizens and an aspect of the good life.

On the other hand, arguing for civic engagement as a right will not obtain funding, education, media coverage, or legal authorization for civic engagement. Instrumental arguments, if handled right, can be helpful. They are ammunition for a peaceful army of engaged citizens.

I would like to think that I am not a communitarian (celebrating “the values and morality of citizens, while de-emphasizing popular authority and political sense”) or merely a deliberative democrat (viewing “correct deliberative communication among citizens as a solvent for all manner of political differences”). I am certainly not a technocrat, and I offer a pretty sharp critique of expertise in chapter 4. With McQuarrie, I believe in power and conflict. Activist social movements must hold governments accountable. They will be–and should be–angry at the powers that be and at their fellow citizens who stand in their way. The strategies I recommend at the end of the book are aimed at bolstering their efforts. I do not for a moment count on policymakers to open doors willingly.

I do, however, reject the argument that “civic virtue [can] only thrive in settings of relative socioeconomic equality.” Effective activism is more common in Tanzania and India than in the US. It has often arisen from the poorest strata of American society, starting with slaves in the antebellum era.

The problem with putting economic equality first and expecting civic renewal to follow is that someone must then pursue economic equality without a popular following. Who will that be, why will the succeed, and why should we trust them if they do? Saul Alinsky was a great theorist, but his popular movements ended in disaster. I denounce the political influence of economic elites, because that is a valid critique and because political reform is required for civic empowerment. I would not personally denounce economic elites as economic parasites because I am not sure that is true, and I know it will divide a potentially broader coalition.

I wrote a book in the late 1990s about the Progressive Era (and actually discarded some detailed historical research I had done for reasons of length and coherence). Reflecting on that history, I would now say that some Progressive Era reforms were elitist and downright damaging. Others were populist and “civic,” in my terms (deliberative, collaborative, and relational). Robert M. La Follette, Jane Addams, and John Dewey were their paragons.

To the extent that these valuable reforms flourished, it was partly because economic radicals (Socialists and agrarian populists) challenged the government and capital. That made elites amenable to sharing some power. But the actual reforms enacted from 1900-1914 did not challenge economic inequality. Progressive reforms were indeed about reducing the political influence of money and increasing deliberative popular influence over government. Typically, the inventors and proponents of these civic reforms were not Socialists or populists. They had broader and more centrist coalitions, including many people who would have bristled at a depiction of the wealthy as parasites. The left movements may have won space for civic reforms, but the civic reforms had different origins and motivations.

Coming back to our present day: I would welcome more effective left-populist grassroots mobilizing on economic issues. I think it would change the balance of power in ways that would help civic reformers. But I think we also need a civic blueprint: a vision of how our democracy should look if we had the power to demand it. That’s what I hope to offer in We Are the Ones–along with strategies for civic reform and topics for the movement to debate. McQuarrie has joined the debate in a most welcome way.

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talking about We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For on WFPW

Here is the audio of David Whetstone and me talking this morning on WPFW’s “Community Watch & Comment” show in Washington, DC. The topic was my book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For. The segment begins about 9:40 on this clip, after the morning news.

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youth Participatory Budgeting in Boston

On Friday, I had the opportunity to observe about 50 Boston young people at work on the city’s youth Participatory Budgeting initiative. I will write the whole story for GOOD Magazine, so this is just a teaser. In essence, volunteer young people (ages 12-25) have brainstormed more than 400 projects that the city could support out of its capital budget. I watched committees of youth come together to study, refine, and screen these proposals. In June, as many youth as possible will be recruited to vote for their favorite proposals at meetings across the city. The city will then allocate $1 million of its capital budget to fund the top-scoring projects.

This is an example of Participatory Budgeting, a process that began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and has since spread to 1,500 locations in many countries, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project. It bears some resemblance to other processes, including the New England town meetings that began in the 1600s and still survive in some towns in our region, not to mention the 265,000 village councils of India and other participatory government mechanisms around the world. It is nevertheless an innovation. The three-step process (brainstorming, project-development, voting); the application to big cities; and the allocation of capital budgets are all distinctive features of Participatory Budgeting. Boston’s process is not the first to restrict the franchise to young residents (regardless of US citizenship status, by the way), but that remains unusual.

I will have more to say about the details as the process unfolds. See also: “the rise of urban citizenship“; “participatory budgeting in Recife, Brazil wins the Reinhard Mohn Prize“; “participatory budgeting in the US“; and my chapter entitled “’Social Accountability’ as Public Work.”

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Joyce’s The Dead

James Joyce’s “The Dead” is certainly the most famous chapter of Dubliners, the only part made into a Hollywood film. Like the other chapters, it is a short story that can be read on its own. But having recently experienced it with the rest of Dubliners for the first time since the 1980s, I realize that it is most effective in its proper context.

Dubliners depicts a huge sociological range, from a child-molesting vagrant to a rich young heir. But to us, who do not live in Dublin ca. 1900, the characters are all specimens. It is not that they are more parochial or naive than we are. They are just people in a particular setting whom we can observe from afar thanks to the extraordinarily fluent and knowing prose of James Joyce. We are free from their particular narrowness.

“The Dead” is different because Gabriel, alone of all Dubliners’ characters, is our peer. The very first sentence is a solicism: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” That is how Lilly would describe her own plight–its grammar distances us. She happens to be running to open the door for Gabriel, who observes her as Joyce would: “Gabriel smiled at the three syllables she had given his surname and glanced at her. She was a slim, growing girl, pale in complexion and with hay-colored hair.” Here the narrator’s style merges with Gabriel’s. The door has opened to admit a knowing observer, our proxy. Gabriel then asks Lilly an insensitive question about her “young man” that he immediately regrets. He stands apart from the social world that he inhabits, as we do.

His task is to give a speech, but

He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognise from Shakespeare or the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his.

I have no Browning by heart; I am not above the men with the clacking heels. But because I read about them from Gabriel’s perspective, which is also Joyce’s, I stand above them for the duration of the story.

One thing unites everyone who lived in Dublin in 1900: they are all dead now. When Joyce wrote, many were still alive, but the future had always been inevitable: they would die while Joyce’s prose still lived. In that respect, the very end of “The Dead” makes it a ghost story. The characters are not literally ghosts, but although we have outlived them–and their author–we can still observe their “wayward and flickering existence”:

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

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why is oligarchy everywhere? (part 2)

By 1937, John D. Rockefeller had accumulated $1.4 billion from his monopolistic oil business. That was 1.5% of the whole nation’s GDP, concentrated in one person. It conferred vast political power on him and his family. His descendents were to include New York Governor and US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, West Virginia Senator and Governor John D. Rockefeller IV, and other prominent leaders of government and philanthropy. In Aristotle’s terms, the Rockefeller family and their peers added an element of oligarchy to the mixed regime of the United States.

However, per Thomas Picketty’s argument, economic growth was larger than the returns to capital from 1913-2000. Meanwhile, the Rockefeller clan grew in number. They earned money from their capital (and from other business activities), but the country grew at a faster pace. As a result, according to Forbes, there are now 200 descendents of John D. Rockefeller, and they have $8.5 billion in combined assets. Their total wealth is 0.05% of the nation’s GDP. It is shared 200 ways, leaving each Rockefeller with an average share of .0002% of GDP.

In short, John D. had a slice of the national pie 7,500 times bigger than that of his descendents. To the extent that today’s Rockefellers have an advantage in politics, it is mainly because the generations after John D. genuinely served the public and built up some honor. His son John D. Jr. quit active management of the family business and devoted himself to philanthropy with a strongly progressive tilt. Many of his children and in-laws then became public servants.

Arguably this happened because, in Aristotle’s terms, the Rockefellers lived in a constitutional polity, or at least a society that aspired to be one. In any proper constitutional polity, “The end of the state is the good life … by which we mean a happy and honorable life” (Politics 3.9). Congress forced John D. Jr., to testify about the Ludlow Massacre, and then Mother Jones herself persuaded him that his testimony had been false. “Mackenzie King was later to say that this testimony was the turning point in Junior’s life, restoring the reputation of the family name; it also heralded a new era of industrial relations in the country.”

In a constitutional order, the rich can grow richer than they were, but their ability to convert their wealth into power must shrink over time; they must be required to explain and justify their behavior; and they must be disciplined by the need to demonstrate public service.

But Aristotle observed a cycle of decline before his own day: “The ruling class soon deteriorated and enriched themselves out of the public treasury; riches became the path to honor, and so oligarchies naturally grew up.” Signs that the same decline is happening today:

  • The owners of capital and their heirs accumulate growing shares of GDP.
  • Capital can be converted into political power. Restraints are removed.
  • Wealth (inherited or otherwise) confers respect or honor, independent of genuine public service.
  • The very wealthy are insulated from their critics and do not have to explain themselves.

[This is a follow-up from yesterday's post. See also Ezra Klein's "Doom Loop of Oligarchy" posted today.]

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why is oligarchy everywhere?

The first governments were kingships. … . But when many persons equal in merit arose, no longer enduring the pre-eminence of one, they desired to have a commonwealth, and set up a constitution. The ruling class soon deteriorated and enriched themselves out of the public treasury; riches became the path to honor, and so oligarchies naturally grew up. These passed into tyrannies and tyrannies into democracies; for love of gain in the ruling classes was always tending to diminish their number, and so to strengthen the masses, who in the end set upon their masters and established democracies. – Aristotle, Politics III

Recent headlines suggest that the Aristotelian cycle is happening globally–with the very important difference that Aristotle believed oligarchies turned into democracies, but the reverse seems to be happening now. For instance:

Why would this be happening? Mainly, it’s because we aren’t fighting back effectively; and I am optimistic that sooner or later we will. But in doing so, we’ll have to address the underlying currents that seem to cause democracies to drift into oligarchies unless we act.

First, consider the argument of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which–to be clear–I have not yet read. His point is that almost always, the return to capital has been greater than the economic growth rate. That means that the people who possess capital get progressively richer than everyone else, and their children get even richer than them. The period 1913-ca. 2010 was anomalous because growth exceeded the return to capital, meaning that people with wealth got richer, but their societies got richer still. That is also a period when democracy and socialism (between them) covered most of the global north. One might assume that market democracies boosted growth and lowered the returns to capital, and that would imply that they can do so again. But it’s also possible that the returns to capital were lower than growth for external reasons (technological change; war), which is why democracies survived. If the latter explanation is true, we are in trouble, because returns to capital again exceed growth and are expected to do so for decades to come.

Second, there’s the disturbing thesis of Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized the Public. In my version of their argument: starting in the 1600s, certain nation-states allowed the mass public to have power. As a result, these states were able to mobilize their people to fight wars and to lend money to finance wars. In turn, the states that had the biggest armies either dominated everyone else or forced the others to imitate them. The exceptions were terrifying tyrannies that conscripted their men and seized their wealth, but they turned out to be fragile. By a kind of Darwinian process, the nation-states that were democracies prevailed; they were “fittest.” But then technologies of death became more sophisticated. Wealthy nations no longer needed lots of soldiers. They could win wars with a few well-equipped professionals. They only needed a small proportion of their people to finance these 21st century militaries. As a result, the Darwinian pressure to expand democracy is now gone.

Again, I am not proposing an inevitable drift to oligarchy. These are simply tendencies that we must confront.

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free speech at a university

(Charlottesville, VA) From Mr Jefferson’s University, here are some thoughts about free speech in academia.

This may seem a simple topic: students and faculty should be able to express themselves freely. But I think it is quite complicated, for two reasons.

First, the university is all about adjudicating and rewarding quality, which conflicts with freedom. Every admissions letter, grade on a paper or a class discussion, decision about hiring or promotion, peer-review, invitation to give a lecture, or choice to acquire a book for the library is a decision about quality. The First Amendment gives you the right to say what you like. But if you write a weak argument for a paper, or express yourself on an irrelevant topic, you will get a lower grade. An institution thoroughly dedicated to making high-stakes assessments cannot also be a free-speech zone.

Second, educators and students both have claims to freedom of speech, and those claims may conflict. Duke Provost Peter Lange was once presented with this scenario:

In the Jan. 25 issue of the Chronicle, a Duke student complained about what he perceived as propagandizing in one of his classes: “One of the most insulting moments of my Duke education occurred in an ancient Chinese history class in spring 2003, when the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq. Our teacher took a break from Confucius and the Han Dynasty to stage a puzzling “teach-in” about Iraq in conjunction with some national organization. During this supposedly neutral discussion, she regaled us with facts and assertions suggesting that the Iraq war was scandalous, foolish and doomed to fail …”

Of course, the Iraq war was scandalous, foolish and doomed to fail. But the teach-in, if accurately described, sounds improper to me. This kind of complaint leads to the provision in the “Academic Bill of Rights” that “Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.” But that clearly trades off against a different provision in the same document: “Academic freedom consists in protecting the intellectual independence of professors …” An intellectually independent professor could choose to indoctrinate (or could speak in a way perceived as indoctrination by students who disagree). As Lange said, to ban that kind of expression limits the professor’s freedom of speech.

Perhaps professors have no valid claim freedom within their classrooms. Let them talk freely on their own time; when on the job, their purpose is to educate the students in their charge. That argument presumes that the value of free speech accrues to the speaker alone–it is about protecting her liberty, dignity, or sheer preference. But free speech also benefits the listeners, including listeners who sharply disagree. As J.S. Mill argued, you cannot test an idea unless you can hear it forcefully expressed by someone who actually believes it. To prevent professors from expressing their own ideas is to take those ideas off the table. In a famous statement from 1894, the University of Wisconsin Regents claimed that professorial freedom would lead toward truth:

We cannot for a moment believe that knowledge has reached its final goal, or that the present condition of society is perfect. … In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

That is an eloquent expression of one side of the debate, but we should not ignore the other side: the rights of the students. A professor has the power to set the agenda and can assign grades for what students say and write. Untrammeled liberty by professors can definitely “chill” the freedom of expression of their students. I think the evidence that professors actually indoctrinate on any substantial scale is weak.* But it could happen.

To make things even more complicated, educators talk to educators; and students, to students. They should all be able to express themselves freely, and yet one’s expression can hamper another’s freedom and flourishing. That is especially true when the balance of power among them is unequal: for instance, when one side outranks or outnumbers the other or has more social clout. “Microaggressions” are exercises of speech that suppress the welfare–and perhaps the liberty–of others. To those who are wholeheartedly committed to confronting microaggressions, I would recall the importance of the speakers’ freedom. Unless people are permitted and even encouraged to say what they think, their ideas cannot be debated, and we can pursue the truth. On the other hand, to those who see the language of “microaggression” as oppressive political correctness, I would argue that some statements really do undermine the standing of our peers and are incompatible with the demanding norms of speech in a university. That doesn’t mean that rules against demeaning speech are wise, but we should be able to denounce a verbal aggression when it occurs.

Since I am here as the guest of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, among other sponsors, I will end by quoting Jefferson: “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty, than those attending too small a degree of it.” But he was also the author of the Senate’s “Manual of Parliamentary Practice,” with its elaborate rules to promote civility and mutual respect. That balance is difficult but crucial.

*(As I noted in a previous post, Yates and Youniss find that a powerful dose of Catholic social doctrine does not convert predominantly Protestant African American students, but provokes them to reflect on their own values. McDevitt and colleagues (in a series of papers including this one), find that political debates in school stimulate critical discussions in the home. Colby et al. find that interactive political courses at the college level, although taught by liberal professors, do not move the students in a liberal direction but deepen their understanding of diverse perspectives. Evidence of the effects of college ideological climates is ambiguous because of students’ self-selection into friendly environments.)

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