Commentary Magazine


Topic: college

We Can’t Afford to Take Free Speech for Granted

A bit over a year ago, I wrote here about Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. Lukianoff is, of course, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that defends free speech on campus without regard to the politics of the speaker. It is a crucial mission as free speech should not be an à la carte privilege. Alas, too often on campus these days, the temptation to censor and repress trumps the willingness or ability to defend shaky, controversial premises.

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A bit over a year ago, I wrote here about Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. Lukianoff is, of course, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that defends free speech on campus without regard to the politics of the speaker. It is a crucial mission as free speech should not be an à la carte privilege. Alas, too often on campus these days, the temptation to censor and repress trumps the willingness or ability to defend shaky, controversial premises.

Lukianoff has written a brilliant new essay entitled “Freedom from Speech,” released as part of the Encounter Broadside series, short and accessible booklets that tackle key contemporary issues. Lukianoff begins by chronicling events in academic year 2013-2014, an annus horribilis for free speech. Media personalities lost their jobs for saying something controversial; a basketball team owner lost his franchise for stupid, racist remarks; and a Silicon Valley CEO was forced to resign after it emerged he gave $1,000 to a charity seeking to ban same-sex marriage.

Lukianoff addresses several issues head-on. For example, he clarifies the difference between the First Amendment and free speech, an important distinction as those prone to punishing speech often argue that free speech binds the government, and not private employers. Here’s what he has to say:

Though often used interchangeably, the concept of freedom of speech and the First Amendment are not the same thing. While the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press as they relate to duties of the state and state power, freedom of speech is a far broader idea that includes additional cultural values. These values incorporate healthy intellectual habits, such as giving the other side a fair hearing, reserving judgment, tolerating opinions that offend or anger us, believing that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and recognizing that even people whose points of view we find repugnant might be (at least partially) right.

In addressing the current situation, Lukianoff harkens back to Unlearning Liberty when he observed how “Administrators [on campus] have been able to convince well-meaning students to accept outright censorship by creating the impression that freedom of speech is somehow the enemy of social progress.” Such attitudes have increasingly permeated society as a generation of intellectually coddled and protected students react to offense or challenge with an authoritarian impulse.

The scariest thing about the free speech crisis is how it has snowballed. It has become a slow motion train wreck: Any honest observer can see how Orwellian universities are becoming, and the silliness that results. Lukianoff looks to Europe where the assault on free speech has progressed further and deeper. He cites how a British parliamentarian was arrested in April 2014 for “religious/racial harassment” for quoting from a book by Winston Churchill, and how the Europeans have embraced a ‘right to be forgotten’ which essentially allows them to control what is written and said about them and their actions.

But Lukianoff argues that universities alone are not to blame. “The ‘It’s all academia’s fault’ argument cannot explain…why higher education, which is an institution that relies on being a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ would turn against free speech in the first place.” Rather, he suggests that the cultural roots of such censorship go deeper. “People all over the globe are coming to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right,” he argues. “Eventually, they stop demanding freedom of speech and start demanding freedom from speech.”

Lukianoff continues to examine why the desire for comfort will lead the threats to freedom of speech to get worse, the “right not to be offended” and the “expectation of confirmation,” and the phenomenon of trigger warnings (which I wrote about here).

While a depressing read—only because it shows the reality of the problem—Lukianoff is not willing to throw up his arms and throw in the towel. He writes:

I am constantly on the lookout for potential cures for this problem. Litigation plays an important role in the fight, as does having students engage in proper Oxford-style debates (like we see today in the Intelligence Squared series). Comedians and satirists may also join the pushback against the infinite care ethic; after all, it is blazingly clear that politically correct censorship and comedy are natural enemies. And, of course, nothing can replace teaching students at every level of education that old-fashion intellectual habits of epistemic humility, giving others benefit of the doubt, and actually listening to opposing opinions.

Sometime during my freshmen year at Yale University, I took “Introduction to Psychology” (taught by Peter Salovey, now president of the university). Salovey was an excellent teacher, although he sometimes seemed to sacrifice rigor for popularity. Still, he assigned a short but extremely valuable booklet that has made me far more critical of what I read to this day. It was “How to Lie with Statistics,” which, as of today, is still the #1 bestseller in statistics on Amazon more than 60 years after it was first published. No student could go wrong with that book on their list. It would be just as valuable it incoming freshmen not only read that booklet, but also added “Freedom from Speech” to their summer reading. Universities could do much worse than encourage incoming students to keep an open mind from day one.

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Are Too Many People Going to College?

I know that punditocracy is not democracy, but can I vote for abandoning the slogan “too many people are going to college”?

Let’s start with the optics. I am sure I am not the only Jewish man in his mid-forties who grew up in a family and extended family that deeply valued attending college and made sacrifices to do so. This was not because the president told them to, or even just because they thought it was essential to earn a decent living, but because they thought that education was not only a path to material advantages, but also part of a good life. My mother, who as a legal secretary earned a better wage than some college graduates, always regretted not finishing at Brooklyn College, and communicated to me the value of the few books she held on to from her college days. What I am trying to suggest is that “too many people are going to college” is a slogan to break a mother’s heart.

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I know that punditocracy is not democracy, but can I vote for abandoning the slogan “too many people are going to college”?

Let’s start with the optics. I am sure I am not the only Jewish man in his mid-forties who grew up in a family and extended family that deeply valued attending college and made sacrifices to do so. This was not because the president told them to, or even just because they thought it was essential to earn a decent living, but because they thought that education was not only a path to material advantages, but also part of a good life. My mother, who as a legal secretary earned a better wage than some college graduates, always regretted not finishing at Brooklyn College, and communicated to me the value of the few books she held on to from her college days. What I am trying to suggest is that “too many people are going to college” is a slogan to break a mother’s heart.

But it’s also not demonstrable. Richard Vedder has argued that this “too many” is a simple observation about supply and demand. “Thirty percent of the adult population has college degrees . . . . The Department of Labor tells us that only 20% or so of jobs require college degrees.” But the Department of Labor’s figures, as Vedder has conceded before, do not explain why the premium employers pay to degree holders has persisted in the face of such an oversupply.

So he retreats into the position that “supply creates its own demand.” Because employers now are blessed with a large pool of degree-holding applicants, they use college degrees as a screening device even for jobs that do not require one. Regardless of whether they learned anything in college or not, degree holders on average “have higher levels of cognitive skills” and “relatively high levels of motivation and discipline developed before attending college.” Vedder laments that the courts have made it difficult for employers to subject potential employees to other screening tests. Employers fear being slapped with a “disparate impact” lawsuit, so they rely on college degrees.

But as Dylan Matthews has proposed in a recent piece, even if the possession of a college degree were no more than a signal of qualities that predated a student’s entry into college, we would want more of our children to have one. Vedder’s argument proves at most that if we lived in a different world than the one we presently occupy, one in which more employers were listening to Vedder and clamoring to replace the college degree with their own screening tests, then too many people would be going to college.

Matthews also links to evidence that not only average but also so-called “marginal” students “may not gain as much as average students, but . . . still gain substantially in many cases.” In attempting to dismiss Matthews, one critic has huffed that to say “college is always worth it is a gross oversimplification of the question.” It will surprise no one to learn that Matthews doesn’t say that college is always worth it. Indeed, I am not sure anyone has ever said that college is always worth it. But establishing that college is not always worth it is a far cry from establishing that too many people are going to college.

A more powerful argument, which Vedder also makes, is that when even 6-year graduation rates are relatively low, going to college is a risk for many students, and one does poor, underprepared students no favors by encouraging them to take on substantial debt and incur the cost of lost wages in the hope that they will beat the odds and finish. That’s true, and Vedder and his allies do everyone a valuable service by drawing attention to it. Still, there is some evidence (cited here) that low-income students underestimate rather than overestimate the potential returns of a college education. And William Bowen has argued that many students “elect . . . not to borrow modest sums needed to finish degree programs in a timely way.” There is no question that some students who attend college are very unlikely to succeed there, and that they should not be encouraged to borrow to attend, but that does not mean that too many people are attending college or that too many opt to borrow.

To return to the family and extended family in which I grew up, I think they would have listened with interest and concern to the evidence that too many students are unprepared for college. I think they also would have listened with interest and concern to the evidence that some colleges are doing a poor job of educating their students, though they would have found Vedder’s observation that students unable “to go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton or even Hopkins, are more liable to get bartending jobs” a bit snotty. But I think they would have been suspicious of the claim that “too many people are going to college.” They may have thought it referred to people like us.

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Youth Prefer Jobs to Hope and Change

The president is having a hard time rounding up the support of young people to generate enthusiasm and votes for his reelection campaign, no doubt because this time around, he’s forced to run on his record, verses vague promises of “hope” and “change.” In 2008, young voters constituted a full fifth of his support, but this time around less than half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 plan to vote in November and only 40 percent are even registered to do so currently. Young Americans certainly have more time on their hands this time around, with 1 in 2 new graduates unemployed or underemployed in jobs that don’t utilize their education background. Too bad for Obama that it doesn’t seem they will be using that time to campaign for another four years of his economy.

How has the president tried to get on the good side of young voters? This week Obama and Biden have made tours of colleges in swing states touting a plan to prevent a doubling of interest rates for students who take out federally funded Stafford loans (despite not even bothering to be present for the 2007 vote). The plan wouldn’t help Americans already paying off student loans, nor would it help those who took loans from private institutions. How many students will this plan actually help? Very few. Like many other lofty presidential plans, however, the most important part is merely the optics – actual results are just a bonus. I’ve written previously on the $1 trillion student loan bubble, and unfortunately, the program being touted by the White House will probably do more harm than good.

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The president is having a hard time rounding up the support of young people to generate enthusiasm and votes for his reelection campaign, no doubt because this time around, he’s forced to run on his record, verses vague promises of “hope” and “change.” In 2008, young voters constituted a full fifth of his support, but this time around less than half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 plan to vote in November and only 40 percent are even registered to do so currently. Young Americans certainly have more time on their hands this time around, with 1 in 2 new graduates unemployed or underemployed in jobs that don’t utilize their education background. Too bad for Obama that it doesn’t seem they will be using that time to campaign for another four years of his economy.

How has the president tried to get on the good side of young voters? This week Obama and Biden have made tours of colleges in swing states touting a plan to prevent a doubling of interest rates for students who take out federally funded Stafford loans (despite not even bothering to be present for the 2007 vote). The plan wouldn’t help Americans already paying off student loans, nor would it help those who took loans from private institutions. How many students will this plan actually help? Very few. Like many other lofty presidential plans, however, the most important part is merely the optics – actual results are just a bonus. I’ve written previously on the $1 trillion student loan bubble, and unfortunately, the program being touted by the White House will probably do more harm than good.

The president has, on numerous occasions, promoted the importance of making college more affordable so that more Americans can have access to higher education. In 2010, he held a “Summit on Community Colleges” where Vice President Biden’s personal connection was highlighted:

As a lifelong educator and community college instructor for the past 17 years, Dr. [Jill] Biden knows that community colleges are uniquely positioned to graduate more Americans with the skills that businesses and the economy will need to compete in the 21st century.

While President Obama continues to pour taxpayer money into government grants and loans, further escalating the student loan crisis, these 1 in 2 unemployed or underemployed Americans with college degrees have got to be wondering why they’ve bothered. Yahoo News reports,

According to government projections released last month, only three of the 30 occupations with the largest projected number of job openings by 2020 will require a bachelor’s degree or higher to fill the position — teachers, college professors and accountants.

This graduating class of Americans has a sense of entitlement unlike any previous generation. They fill their teen years with extracurricular activities instead of after-school jobs, they expect to go to the college of their choice and demand government grants and loans to pay their way, and upon graduation are shocked to learn that their Creative Writing degree with a minor in Gender Studies doesn’t automatically qualify them for a well-paid job writing creatively about gender.

It’s time for the president to state some uncomfortable truths: America cannot, and should not, be spending its resources on giving money to universities that raise tuition at three times the rate of inflation, encouraging even more student debt. Why do we teach our children that college is not only a necessity, but also an entitlement? Why is a generation of liberal arts majors languishing in unemployment, leeching off their parents while blue-collar jobs go unfilled?

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