The search for truth takes a hit at MIT
Can free speech survive on America’s university campuses?
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Dorian Abbot, a renowned geophysicist at the University of Chicago, was invited by MIT to deliver a prestigious public lecture. But soon after that, MIT rescinded the invitation. The reason? He had dared to speak out in criticism against Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI) and affirmative action programs.
Professor Abbot’s planned lecture was on climate and the potential for life on other planets, with no reference whatsoever to his opinion on DEI or affirmative action. But no matter. He had committed heresy against the orthodoxy of the new Woke religion—and in academia, no less, where its most fervent priests and priestesses reside. For his heretical views, he must be prosecuted.
Some thought that the hard sciences would be immune to the wave of Woke ideology, even if the rest of academia had fallen to the new orthodoxy of the Left. They are evidently wrong. MIT is as prestigious an institution of the hard sciences as can be found. But in Abbot’s case, 2+2=4 was “white supremacist patriarchy,” and in California, 2+2=4 may be thought racist. So, one should not be shocked that the Woke religion has today infected even the so-called hard sciences. Even at MIT.
The temptation to throw up one’s hands and to despair over the state of academia and free speech is powerful. But this is no time to give in. The Abbot situation forces us to go back to first principles, asking again what free speech is ultimately for? Why defend it?
The longing for truth is imprinted in the human soul, and academia was founded to pursue truth. Colleges and universities are, or should be, dedicated to truth-seeking, along with its articulation and witness. But such a mission is not possible without free speech. Free speech does not guarantee that truth is found, but truth-seeking cannot take place without it. Free speech may not be sufficient to ensure academic credibility, but it is necessary. With free speech comes the risk of speech that may be offensive or heretical. But we allow for the prevalence of unseemly speech to protect the underlying search for truth.
To test one’s convictions, an honest thinker must consider competing viewpoints to confront one’s own dearly held beliefs and presuppositions. Perhaps, after considering an opposing view, one sees an error in one’s own view. Perhaps a seeker after truth sees how he or she was right all along. But there may be nuances and contours and depths newly discovered through considerations of an opposing view. Or perhaps one sees the same view but now from a new confidence, a different vista, ever enriching the perspective. Truth is likened to a diamond, where beholding different dimensions of it only adds to its beauty and goodness.
Free speech is worth defending not just for the sake of freedom—it is for something far grander. It is worth defending for the sake of truth. Freedom of speech is good and wonderful, but it is an instrumental good in the service of the intrinsic good of knowledge and wisdom—ultimately, truth. As G. K. Chesterton said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Solid, like rock-solid truth.
These are dark days when free speech is stifled, such that the vocation of academia for truth-seeking is severely hindered. But there are glimmers of hope. The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) is a new organization dedicated to defending academic freedom. (I am a member.) It condemned MIT’s decision to disinvite Professor Abbot. After MIT’s embarrassing surrender, one of AFA’s founders, Robert P. George of Princeton University, invited Professor Abbot to lecture at Princeton. Professor Abbot then delivered the same lecture on the same day that he had been scheduled to lecture at MIT—but he spoke at Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions instead. Enrollment in the Zoom event for the lecture grew so large that Princeton had to increase its Zoom capacity for it. Thousands of people attended or viewed the lecture.
The American university campus is increasingly hostile to the honest exchange of ideas. Whenever free speech is denied, may many rise with courage to defend it—for the worthy sake of truth—and for the true calling of higher education.
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