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College Is All About Curiosity. And That Requires Free Speech.

Stanford could have taken action against Shockley on other grounds, entirely consistent with academic freedom. He was accused of telling a Nigerian graduate student in a quantum-mechanics seminar that he did not belong in the class because of his race and should consider merely auditing the course. That act of singling out an individual illustrates how weakly the famous physicist understood statistics; it also constitutes a form of discrimination that a university can regulate without violating academic freedom, for Shockley was evaluating not the abilities of the student as an individual but the abilities of the student as representative of a class. But in the end Stanford took no action. (The student in question subsequently earned a physics Ph.D.)

If telling students and faculty what they must not say is bad, telling them what they must say is often worse. The success of the university, Paulsen wrote, rests upon the notion “that truth is the sole aim and not the proof of officially prescribed and quasi-officially desired or at least permitted views.” During the second Red Scare, which began after World War II, the most significant threat to this view was the loyalty oath. Faculty members across the country were asked to swear allegiance to the United States and, often, to affirm that they were not and had never been Communists. Many who refused lost their jobs — including at the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful institutions.

Nowadays, I worry that we’re repeating the same mischief, with mandated (or strongly encouraged) “diversity statements” and the like. I’m often told that because I obviously agree with the goals the statements promote, I shouldn’t make a big deal out of them. But this objection misses the point. The “what’s the big deal?” approach puts me in mind of the philosopher Sidney Hook, who in a 1953 essay in The Times argued that an academic who refused to swear to not being a member of the Communist Party was like a chef who refused to say whether he was the one who poisoned the food. Not for a moment did Hook entertain the notion that the hypothetical professor might simply believe, as a matter of principle, that it is wrong to screen the professorate for ideological conformity.

It was wrong then; it is wrong now.

Don’t mistake me. I’m not against ideology and social movements, except when they interfere with academic curiosity. On campus, at least, you should be able to support Israel in the Gaza War, yet feel free to argue that the Israelis have prosecuted the conflict too aggressively; or to support the aspirations of the Palestinians, yet be willing to condemn unequivocally Oct. 7.

This understanding points toward the proper resolution of other campus conflicts as well. Consider, for instance, the recent controversy at the University of California, Berkeley, law school over student organizations that require invited speakers to be “anti-Zionist,” an explicit ideological screen. The answer is not to argue over whether such demands violate school rules, but to emphasize the ways in which such restrictions violate the norms of curiosity and engagement that lie at the heart of higher education. Hanging out only with those they already agree with is one of the worst ways for young people to waste their years on campus.

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