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Sunday, Dec 4, 2022

A Robust Public Sphere

Editor’s note: This column is excerpted from remarks President Laurie L. Patton gave to the Middlebury College faculty in early April. It also appeared in a slightly different form in the spring issue of Middlebury Magazine.

The events of March 2 and the ensuing debate about the value of public discourse have not only made national news, but they have set the context for a Middlebury-wide debate over free expression and the values of our community. I am proud we are having this discussion. I see it as a sign of our vitality even as I recognize it has been divisive at times and the source of some difficult discussions. As we end the year, I believe it is important to share my own views on these issues.

A true commitment to education must embrace an uncompromising commitment to free and open dialogue that expands understanding, challenges our assumptions and ultimately creates a more inclusive public sphere.

Controversial speech, or speech by a controversial speaker, can be challenging in a time when the very idea of a public sphere seems fragile. Controversial speech is also more difficult in a time when issues that should be contested and addressed become exclusively owned by “the left” or “the right.” In our current state, deep educational commitments, such as exploring the history of oppression and freedom, may be difficult to share as common public goods. But they should be understood as such, and it is our responsibility to teach them and to discuss them with candor. That is the only way we can reach the truth.

There are many struggles playing themselves out on our college campuses: how does one acknowledge the discomfort that a true liberal education must entail, while at the same time recognizing and respecting the often difficult and unfair experiences of our students who have walked in the American margins? Acknowledging and honoring those margins as real spaces is essential. Honoring the study and articulation of those experiences is crucial to our well-being as a society. And in honoring those margins, we must pay attention to hurt, to offense, to accumulated injury. So, how do we relate these two fundamental values—the necessary discomfort of a liberal education and an honoring of the difficult experiences of our students who have walked in the margins? And how do we do so in the context of free speech debates?

Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago Law School professor and First Amendment scholar, has cautioned that if we are permitted to silence distasteful views, we risk becoming silenced ourselves. And once censorship becomes acceptable, those most likely to be silenced are our citizens who find themselves in the minority—be they religious, racial or political minorities.

With this in mind, I believe that if there ever was a time for Americans to take on arguments that offend us, it is now. If there ever was a time for us to challenge influential public views with better reason, better research, better logic and better data, it is now. If there ever was a time when we needed to risk being offended, to argue back even while we are feeling afraid, to declare ourselves committed to arguing for a better society, it is now.

The questions that we encounter strike at the very heart of who we are as an institution, and we should take our time to learn, to debate, to understand and to reflect.

In its tradition as an institution of excellence and of courageous engagement, Middlebury must find a way to connect the principles of free speech and the creation of a robust public sphere. I believe we all can agree that education is about exposing students to different ideas and giving them the skills and courage to choose between them. And I believe we all can agree that education should give students the skills and courage to make this a better world. These values are usually not in conflict. However, in our most painful moments, such as the one we experienced in early March, they were indeed conflicting.

In my view, the first of these commitments is a necessary precondition of the second. Education must be free enough to expose students to a wide range of conflicting and even disturbing ideas, for only then will we be able to give our students the wisdom, the resilience and the courage to make this a better world.

I will work tirelessly for both inclusivity and freedom of speech. There are no more important projects than these. But this is possible only if academic freedom and freedom of speech are defended on all sides. It is only through this principle that we will enable our students to reason, to discover new ideas, to argue effectively, to empower themselves and others and to achieve the work of making society more just. In this way, we will, in the long run, create a public sphere that is more inclusive, more vibrant and more engaging. That is, after all, what we are most fundamentally about.