Harrisburg Patriot News 3/13/05
This op-ed piece by Dickinson College President William G. Durden appeared in the opinion section of the Harrisburg Sunday Patriot-News on March 13, 2005.
In recent months, there have been some very public outcries against higher-education institutions that were prepared to sponsor speakers with extremely controversial or unpopular views.
While the public has every right to protest these viewpoints, colleges and universities cannot and should not shy away from presenting a multiplicity of ideas. It is in no one's best interest to screen or censor the variety of ideas-tame and preposterous-with which our students must grapple. If a spirited debate cannot take place at colleges and universities, historically the intellectual centers of our nation, then where will it occur?
How will our students learn to live with and respect divergent opinions as they step into their role as citizens? How will they gain the skills to divine truth from falsehood if all they encounter is pre-packaged "truth" wrapped snuggly in someone else's ideology? We, as educators, have a twin obligation to present divergent points of view to our students and to give them the intellectual tools to draw their own conclusions.
At Dickinson, we defend space for free intellectual inquiry of all sorts. In some instances we as an institution will also decide not to engage our monies, property or staff. We have a responsibility to avoid speakers who advocate violence, whose presence endangers the safety of our community or who add nothing new intellectually, politically or artistically into our conversation This is not a freedom of speech issue. It is a matter of education -- of choosing deliberately, among the multitude of possible speakers, those whose viewpoint adds value to our disciplined inquiry.
As a society, we should not underplay the essential need for a community of inquiry, like a college or university, to have the freedom to choose speakers for a dynamic intellectual exchange of disparate ideas. Once speakers of various and often conflicting perspectives are invited, we are committed to allowing our audiences to judge rationally for themselves the ultimate value of what they collectively or individually hear and then believe. Likewise, we expect speakers to defend their ideas through reason against those who would believe otherwise. Free speech is not without accountability.
It is often the very public exposure and examination of speech initially thought to be absolutely abhorrent by some that lead to unanticipated discovery. This, in turn, helps to develop a public mindset that can more readily discern the possible manipulation of ideas and the various motivations-not all of which are genuine and well-grounded-of those people who espouse them. Thus, the public forum for ideas at America's colleges and universities possesses the awesome power to expose far more than the corruptness of ideas; it can lay bare the very people who profess them.
Such is the brilliance of the free exchange of ideas in a democracy. A free marketplace of thought possesses a critical place in our society. We, the general audience, have more understanding and insight than often arrogantly assumed by those who would control our exposure and judge us corruptible. How dare they presume our democratic obligation and privilege both to listen and to question? How dare they attempt to render us subservient to a fear of ideas? We will judge for ourselves.
At Dickinson, we affirm you , the audience, as rational beings. Just as our founder, Dr. Rush, and his friends-Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Dickinson and Franklin-hold us all capable of self-government, we hold you-our students, faculty and the general public invited into our midst-capable of governing your own ideas.