2005 Convocation remarks

President Elaine Tuttle Hansen

We come together today — faculty, staff members, students, parents, alumni, and friends of Bates — at an exciting point in this College’s history. Over the course of the past several months, we have been motivated by the celebration of our 150th anniversary to look back, and it has been both inspiring and humbling to remind ourselves of the vision and values that brought Bates into being in 1855. We have also been looking forward, asking ourselves what a Bates education ought to be in the 21st century, what kind of facilities will be needed to support the campus community for at least the next 25 years, and how we will secure the resources needed, going forward, to keep Bates at the forefront of academic accomplishment and social responsibility. In typical Bates fashion, we have thus set ourselves a challenging and far-sighted agenda, and as we come together to start the new year we focus on working together, as a community, to meet our challenges.

We do so in a time of division and contention. In the midst of heated ideological collisions on so many fronts, American colleges and universities in particular find themselves on the firing line and criticized among other things for their “liberal” bias. The term “intellectual diversity” — borrowed from the progressive agenda of the last half of the 20th century, with its emphasis on cultural diversity — has been coined to describe something that is supposedly missing on campuses today. You will hear it said by some, if you haven’t already, that colleges like Bates are places where “conservatives” are silenced, intimidated, and in the minority. As part of the rebuttal of this claim of “left”-leaning bias, you will also hear it said by others that organized forces on the “right” are systematically attacking one of the only remaining institutions where progressive thinking and healthy criticism of the status quo is not only allowed but encouraged. (I throw the words “liberal” and “conservative” as well as “left” and “right” into quotation marks for now, and later I’ll come back to explain why I do so.)

This situation should not surprise or dismay us, but it should intrigue us. There are critical issues that citizens need to be talking about, urgent problems not susceptible to easy fixes or simple answers. If we weren’t struggling with difficult, divisive, contentious matters at Bates, something would be very wrong.

Indeed, the fact that college students today are more interested in politics than in recent generations is a great thing. What I fear the most is not that we heatedly disagree, but that we retreat from engagement — to that terrifying place that Yeats saw, in “The Second Coming,” where “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” I challenge and encourage each of you, from wherever you stand, even or perhaps especially if you aren’t sure where you stand, to take part in intense discussions as you seek and test conviction. This afternoon I offer some loosely related observations about three issues that are critical to doing so, and to some convictions I hope we share: the value of diversity of persons and opinions, the meaning “academic freedom,” and the importance of putting those quotation marks around “conservative” and “liberal.”

Colleges and universities, in the wake of the civil rights movement, are more heterogeneous in so many ways than they used to be. As recently as the late 1960s, when I entered college, most elite institutions were single sex and racially segregated (present company notably excepted). The days when institutions of higher learning were like private clubs restricted in membership to people with particular chromosomes and skin color seem long gone, but the changes have actually been very sudden. We are now in the process of reaping their benefits, but it is a process. With this wonderful era of greater diversity comes greater disagreement, to begin with, but also greater wisdom, if we can figure out how to put our heads together.

In a recent national faculty survey in which the majority of Bates faculty participated, one principle generated the greatest consensus: a diverse student body enhances the experience of all students. On that same survey, 100 percent of the faculty who responded said the most important goal of the college was to develop the ability to think critically. Without giving undo weight to surveys, I cite these particular results because taken together they underscore that the principle of diversity and the goal of critical thinking are integrally connected. The belief that critical thinking requires and enables us to look at things from all sides and to analyze competing ideas is at the heart of the academic enterprise, and fundamental to understanding the meaning of academic freedom.

Another survey, a very unscientific one that I conducted this summer, suggests that the most common definition of “academic freedom” among educated non-academics is something like “the right to say or write or do something that offends someone.” This is an accurate but incomplete definition that misses the broader nature and historic goals of academic freedom. Some of its foundational ideas can be traced back at least as far as Plato’s notion of the academy, which relies on the practice of teaching and learning through dialogue. In the 17th century in England, in another period of great social upheaval, John Milton’s passionate argument in The Areopagitica against censorship of books more deeply and thoroughly illuminates the principles upon which academic freedom rests. Milton believed that truth is hard for human beings to find, and almost always tangled up with falsehood. Censorship is wrong, he insisted, because all sides of every issue have to be freely explored if we are to exercise human reason in our efforts to discern the truth. We need especially to test ideas rigorously and repeatedly especially against those who disagree — “I cannot praised a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.” In fact, Milton argued, if we censor any ideas, we are more likely to censor truth, because our vision, “dimmed with prejudice and custom,” may find truth less plausible than error. No one person or group has any special access to truth, moreover, and so people willing to set themselves up as censors are ironically the very people who understand the least about truth.

Among the pioneers in defining academic freedom as we know it today in America, where it has become a legal principle rooted in the First Amendment, early 20th century educational philosopher John Dewey shared Plato and Milton’s conception of learning as an arduous search that entailed not passively absorbing set notions but actively flexing and building the muscles of reason by confronting disagreement and, after careful thought and study, making free choices. The undergraduate years are a time when it is particularly important to be free to think both rightly and wrongly, Dewey argued, in order to grow more skilled at understanding the difference without having to suffer the practical consequences.

In 1915 the AAUP, first formally articulated the concept of academic freedom. The three central tenets of this concept do not merely protect one’s right to be offensive, but more fundamentally lay out a balance of rights and responsibilities that are essential to the vigorous search for truth in an academic setting — and let me just quote these tenets, excerpted from the 1940 articulation of the principles of academic freedom:

1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of results, subject to the adequate performance of their academic duties….

2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject….

3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and as educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.[[1]]

The U.S. courts have repeatedly upheld the importance of academic freedom in terms that summon up the ideas of Plato, Milton, and Dewey — in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), for example, the court said that teachers and students “must always remain free to inquire, to study, and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.” In Keyishian v. Board of Regents of New York (1967), Justice William Brennan wrote that “the Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of the multitude of tongues, rather than through any kind of authoritative selection.’ “[[2]]

Faculty members at Bates, enjoying the rights of academic freedom, have a passion and a responsibility to help students see the difficulty and complexity of things. Yeats also wrote that “Education is not the filling of a pail / but the lighting of a fire,” and sometimes it’s hard for students to understand that a burning passion can sound at best a little rude, at worst downright hostile. I remember the many search committees I served on when I was a faculty member, and the reaction of students on those committees to the intense, aggressive questions that faculty asked candidates — students wondered why faculty were so mean to these visitors, and only after some experience did they begin to see that it was what the visitors expected and deserved; in fact, the more we wanted to recruit a candidate, the more we showed respect for her or his work by interrogating it. Now it is possible to mistake academic passion and pushing for intimidation and it is understandable that students will feel they must defer to someone who has obviously spent a lot more time on a subject, has thought longer and harder and knows more, and who is assigning the grade at the end of the course.

But as students you have rights and responsibilities, too: you are free and you are obliged, if you want to get the most out of your Bates education, to challenge what you hear from other students and from faculty, in respectful and informed ways. To succeed in learning to think harder, however, you must also listen hard before you dismiss other ideas. Practice what I might call “incendiary listening” while you are here — walk into the classroom or Commons or your dorm room expecting that each time you could hear something that would radically change your mind, or at least spark some new insight. Assume that you have something to learn from the very person who seems most unlike you, most difficult to listen to. Each of us has a different tolerance for argument and dispute, each of us may choose a different time and a different way to speak up, just as we all have different ways of learning — but you will not learn if you speak without listening, or listen only for the weakest spots in the other person’s argument, or hunker down and then say you are silenced. And listen too for the common ground you can stand on with the persons and perspectives you differ with. Seek ways and means to disagree with mutual respect, civility, open-mindedness and open-heartedness.

Before I close, I want to come back to those quotation marks that I put around conservative and liberal, right and left, a few minutes ago, and I want to caution you about these current polarities that we hear bandied about all the time. I can say it no better than to quote Professor Emeritus of Philosophy David Kolb, who recently remarked, in a faculty discussion about alleged political bias: “This debate about liberal/conservative bias suffers from the kind of presuppositions that academics are supposed to challenge. Two big vague terms “liberal” and “conservative” are inflated into polar opposites that paralyze careful analysis of the multiple issues on which people may argue and differ, their varied convictions, reasons, consequences, and the many different ways they can be combined. Having discussions polarized this way may aid political organizations and media ratings, but it hinders thought. Removing middle grounds for discussion is a standard tactic for extremists of all kinds. It makes it easy to attach big labels to people on the basis of views on one or two issues, denying that there is room for analysis, for new arguments, for rephrasing questions and providing unexpected options that involve new ideas or combinations of ideas.”

The founders of Bates College believed in radical openness in various senses — they believed that heaven was more open than others might believe, and that a college should be open too to many who were excluded elsewhere. The past and the present of Bates College meet, then, when we celebrate the virtue of openness. I ask that we begin this new academic year with a renewed commitment to diversity of people and ideas, and to the hard listening and rational dialogue that can overcome prejudice and custom and open the door to teaching and learning.

[1] These principles are taken from the AAUP’s “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.”

[2] These and other references to Supreme Court reflections on academic freedom are taken from Gary Pavela, “Academic Freedom for Students Has Ancient Roots,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 27. 2005.

  • Contact Us