Academic journal article Theory in Action

Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate

Article excerpt

Book Review: Greg Lukianoff, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. Encounter Books, 2012. ISBN: 978-1594036354 (Hardcover). 294 Pages. $25.99.

[Article copies available for a fee from The Transformative Studies Institute. E-mail address: journal@transformativestudies.org Website: http://www. transformativestudies, ors O2014 by The Transformative Studies Institute. All rights reserved.]

In Unlearning Liberty Greg Lukianoff has published a timely and provocative analysis of contemporary threats to freedom of speech at US colleges and universities. Lukianoff is a First Amendment attorney, and he is also the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Thus, Lukianoff makes it abundantly clear that there is hardly anyone who is better qualified to author this book.

Lukianoff opens his discussion by highlighting the problem of certainty. Certainty, or the presumption that one's beliefs are as perfectly formed as they could possibly be, does indeed pose a dire threat to the freedom of speech. Intellectually speaking, doubt is a far more productive engine of progress and intellectual dynamism than certainty. Though this may sound contradictory, doubt is actually a form of wisdom. If we're going to be honest, we have to admit that all human knowledge is imperfect. Even our best ideas can be improved. It is only by doubting our most cherished beliefs that knowledge-seekers can continue the never-ending search for more and better insights. Conversely, certainty ossifies intellectual progress. When people feel certain, those folks tend to operate on the false assumption that their beliefs need not-nay, must not!-change. Even worse, certainty has a tendency to inspire rancorous and irresolvable antipathies. Those who are certain in their beliefs tend to be less tolerant of opposing viewpoints and less willing to compromise-lest they be tempted to diverge one iota from their presumptively perfect convictions. Compromise requires a willingness to cede some amount of intellectual ground to the virtues of opposing viewpoints, whereas certainty rules out all such faithless meanderings. Quite correctly, Lukianoff asserts that an excessive climate of certainty is responsible, both on and off campus, for mobilizing "foot soldiers for a seeming endless culture war" (p.13), and, I might also add, unwarranted certainty is also responsible for a sizable portion of the gridlock in Washington, DC.

Lukianoff believes-and I happen to agree-that colleges and universities have a special obligation to foster vibrant free speech environments. The purpose of higher education is not to fill anyone's head with certainties. Rather, higher education has an obligation to stimulate skeptical, critical thought. Higher education must not tell students what to think. It should equip students with a better grasp of how to think. Lukianoff points out that colleges and universities are increasingly being judged on their ability to cultivate their students' critical thinking skills. Critical thinking requires high-level analytical operations that enable individuals to simultaneously hold two opposing ideas in their minds while even-handedly appraising the strengths and weaknesses of each viewpoint. In a complex world that is growing smaller and more crisis-ridden by the day, it will take legions of critical thinkers to steer civilization along the tortuous path to a better, brighter future.

Important as critical thinking may be, Lukianoff argues that, these days, higher education institutions are doing little more than giving lip service to critical thinking. Lukianoff argues-and, again, I am inclined to agree-that critical thinking has suffered in higher education in direct correlation with the vastly swelling ranks of university administrators. He writes:

The dramatic expansion of the administrative class on campus may be the most important factor in the growth of campus intrusions into free speech and thought, (p. …

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