Political scientist Charles Murray’s account of his frightening experience at Middlebury College last week reminds me of stories told by the Little Rock Nine about the shouting, shoving mob they faced during their effort to desegregate Little Rock Central High in 1957. This comparison will aggravate many who, like me, hold up the Little Rock Nine as moral heroes.
Murray, best known as co-author of the “The Bell Curve,” has written extensively about racial disparities in the mean (or average) of IQ distributions within groups, and I am a critic of his work. Yet last week he won my admiration for how he, along with his hosts, displayed courage in the face of violent campus protests.
As the day of his lecture drew near, word of anticipated protests built. The college administration commendably developed a plan to make sure the event would go forward, even in the face of protests. It prepared a video studio from which, if necessary, Murray could live-stream his remarks to the audience that wished to hear them. During the event, Murray and his faculty host, Professor Allison Stanger, accompanied by the college’s vice president for communications, Bill Burger, were obliged to retreat to that studio.
The foursome of Murray, Stanger, Burger and Middlebury President Laurie L. Patton, alongside two security guards, are also to be commended for their fortitude. They came out to meet a full house in a 400-seat auditorium, where according to Murray half of the audience appeared to be protesters. After the event, Murray, Stanger and Burger, along with the guards, had to make their way on foot, and then by car, through groups that were physically attacking them in order to keep a date for dinner with students.
Democracies and academies have, historically, risen together. Ancient Athens, where formal democracy first flowered, was also where, after the injustice of the execution of Socrates, Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum nonetheless bloomed. When the democracy succumbed to the geopolitical dominance of the Macedonian Alexander the Great, the cities’ new leaders shrank the size of the voting citizenry and once again sought the expulsion of philosophers.
In the young American republic, many in the founding generation recognized the importance of education to a democratic citizenry. The remarkable network of liberal arts colleges such as Middlebury, now scattered throughout the country and most densely in the Northeast, reflects that generation’s expectation that sacred groves of higher learning can improve and anchor a healthy democratic culture. Abraham Lincoln renewed that national commitment when he signed the 1862 Morrill Act, which gave us the land-grant public universities throughout the country.
But what does it take to preserve those sacred groves? How can colleges and universities meet their responsibility to nourish the intellectual life of a democracy generally? In a democracy, where freedom of association and speech are core rights and should be rigorously defended, the ethics of protesting should be defined by a commitment to embody in the protest itself the very norms that sustain democracies.
Democracies are necessarily contentious but can survive only if they can channel contestation into peaceful forms of behavior. Hence the importance of the first rule of protest — that it be nonviolent.
Second, protest on a college campus should have the goal of making a college the best it can be. The supreme academic aspiration is to defeat bad arguments with better ones. Rather than shouting down Murray, the protesters should have read his work and figured out how to critique it. There’s lots of room for that. I have many disagreements with how scholarship that focuses on the question of IQ, as Murray’s often does, organizes even its core concepts — for instance, its overemphasis on the mean within a distribution, a weakness that Plato pointed out about a related set of views millennia ago when he challenged ancient Greek assumptions that male intelligence was superior to female intelligence. Imagine how powerful a protest would be when one after another protester calmly and civilly puts a question to the speaker that reveals the holes in his argument.
Finally, to protect the sacred groves of academe, and the wellsprings of contentious but peaceful and intellectually rigorous debate in a democracy, those of us committed to the academy should step up to defend our campuses as places where two things are both true: Free speech is protected, and members of a campus community recognize their responsibility to prove themselves trustworthy to one another.
Proving ourselves trustworthy means that it is wrong to fling insults and to swear at one another, even in cases where those things don’t add up to a legally prohibited threat or harassment. It also means that it is better to pursue argument with the other side than disdainful mockery of its views and to argue on the merits rather than make ad hominem attacks. This goes for both left and right.
Our civic culture is badly debilitated. Colleges and universities need to replenish their capacity to defend the intellectual life of democracies. The Little Rock Nine were heroes for embodying in their own behavior the best of democratic aspirations as they tried, simply, to go to school. At Middlebury last week, Murray and his hosts were also trying, simply, to keep school open. In this moment, they, too, were heroes.