Higher Education Is a House Divided ; STEM Disciplines, Humanities Differ on Free Speech

By Will, George | Charleston Gazette Mail, December 21, 2015 | Go to article overview

Higher Education Is a House Divided ; STEM Disciplines, Humanities Differ on Free Speech


Will, George, Charleston Gazette Mail


WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. Although he is just 22, Andrew Zeller is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at Purdue University. He is one reason the school is a rare exception to the rule of unreason on American campuses, where freedom of speech is under siege.

He and Purdue are evidence that freedom of speech, by which truth is winnowed from error, is most reliably defended by those in whose intellectual pursuits the truth is most rigorously tested by reality.

While in high school, Zeller completed three years of college undergraduate courses. He arrived at Purdue when its incoming president, Indianas former Gov. Mitch Daniels, wanted the university to receive the top green light rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which combats campus restrictions on speech and rates institutions on their adherence to constitutional principles.

Zeller, president of Purdues graduate student government, and some undergraduate leaders urged Daniels to do what he was eager to do: Purdue has become the second university (after Princeton) to embrace the essence of the statement from the University of Chicago that affirms the principle that education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.

The statement says it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive, and it endorses a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

Why is Purdue one of just six universities that have now aligned with the spirit of the Chicago policy? Partly because of Daniels leadership. But also because Purdue, Indianas land-grant institution, is true to the 1862 Morrill Acts emphasis on applied learning. It graduates more engineers than any U.S. university other than Georgia Tech. Purdue, tied with the University of California, Berkeley, awards more STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) undergraduate diplomas than all but two public research universities (Penn State and Texas A&M). Among such universities, a higher percentage of Purdue students graduate in STEM fields than those of any school other than Georgia Tech and the University of California, San Diego.

Scientists and engineers live lives governed by the reality principle: Get the variables wrong, the experiment will fail. …

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