They open by pointing out how, on the one hand, FIRE and other campus free speech advocacy groups constantly say universities need open policies on freedom of expression because universities aim at the truth. Yet, on the other hand, many universities, including those with a strong reputation for supporting free speech, don’t mention truth at all in their mission statements. By their count, only one of the schools on FIRE’s top 25 makes truth a priority.
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They open by pointing out how, on the one hand, FIRE and other campus free-speech advocacy groups constantly say that institutions of higher education need open policies on freedom of expression because such institutions aim at the truth. Yet, on the other hand, many colleges, including those with a strong reputation for supporting free speech, don’t mention truth at all in their mission statements. By Khalid and Snyder’s count, only one of the institutions in FIRE’s top 25 makes truth a priority.
There are two problems here. First, if your college’s mission statement doesn’t refer to truth, that doesn’t mean truth is not a priority. It could mean that. Or it could just mean the committee that cooked up the mission statement for your website consisted of a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re talking about. And even if the word “truth” doesn’t show up, that doesn’t mean it isn’t implied. The University of Mississippi’s mission statement doesn’t contain the T-word. But it does say it aims to “create, evaluate, share, and apply knowledge.” Now here’s the thing: If you got it wrong, it’s not knowledge. You cannot know what’s false. So, if you aim at knowledge, you aim also at truth.
You might say the same of places that aim to “advance teaching and research” (as any place that deserves to call itself a university will). For what are teaching and research if not efforts to obtain, maintain, and disseminate knowledge and, therefore, truth? To make the mission-statement argument work, you’d need to show that most mission statements contain neither the word “truth” nor anything else that entails truth. But that, as it turns out, just ain’t true.
Khalid and Snyder think the truth telos is, in their words, “a product of particular historical moments” or, in mine, a passing campus fad like streaking and goldfish-swallowing. They have several arguments for this. The first is that, in the medieval period, universities were completely beholden to religion and thus their mission was not truth per se but something Khalid and Snyder call “biblical truth” which, I guess, means they don’t think the Bible is really true. I guess I don’t either. But the church sure did. So even back then, it’s not that medieval universities weren’t after truth. It’s that they were confused about where to find it.
The essayists’ second argument is even worse. Khalid and Snyder say there are entire disciplines on contemporary college campuses that aren’t even trying to get at the truth. Their example: history. According to them, there was a time when historians cared about what’s “really” true but, just as frat boys used to layer three or four polo shirts with all the collars popped, that’s not cool anymore. Nowadays, historians are all about the “reconstitution” of the past.
I am not a historian. Khalid and Snyder are. Nonetheless, I feel completely confident in saying: That’s insane. If Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, then it’s true — in fact, really true — that he did, and there’s nothing any of us can do now to make it so that never happened. There’s also nothing we can do to reconstitute things so it wasn’t him but some other guy. Of course, you are free to dispute the proposition that Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. And you might convince people. But that is not a “reconstitution of the past” — because that’s impossible.
Khalid and Snyder point out that historians sometimes reach different conclusions after looking at the same evidence. They take that as another reason to think historians are not aiming at the truth. That’s a mistake. If the conclusions the historians reach are contradictory — if one says Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and the other says he didn’t — then one of them is wrong. But that doesn’t mean neither aims at the truth. On the contrary, what’s true and what’s not is exactly what’s at issue. And if their differing conclusions are compatible then, by definition, they can both be true.
Now, can’t two conflicting accounts of historical events each, as Khalid and Snyder say, “have merit”? Sure. But that doesn’t mean history does not aim at the truth. At most, it means the evidence is indecisive, and therefore nobody knows what the truth is. To say that two parties aim at the truth is not to say either has it or knows they do. And even if they know they have it, that doesn’t mean they must be absolutely certain they have it. Aiming at the truth does not commit you to closed-minded dogmatism. On the contrary, the dogmatist resolutely sticks to his own opinions because he cares more about those opinions being his than he cares about whether they are true.
Khalid and Snyder are staunch advocates of free speech on college campuses. The point of moving away from the aim of truth and toward this other thing — a thing they don’t seem to realize has truth as a component — is, for them, largely tactical. When we defend free speech by appeal to the goal of truth, the story goes, we alienate all those folks on campus who don’t care about the truth. If we would only abandon that aim, we could welcome them to the free-speech party.
I don’t buy the claim that historians — the good ones anyway — aren’t trying to get at what’s true. But I have met people on campus who I wouldn’t say care much for truth. The trouble is that these people don’t care about freedom of speech either. In a sense, I don’t blame them. After all, the best defense of freedom of expression is still Chapter II of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty — and the entire argument there is tethered to the idea that we want the truth.
The argument goes like this. Either what the contrarian says is true, or it isn’t. If it is true, then suppression robs us of the opportunity to correct ourselves. If it isn’t, then by refusing to engage with the contrarian’s arguments, we miss out on the opportunity to gain, in Mill’s words, “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” So if we give up on truth, we also give up on the best argument for freedom of expression. What’s left? Independent of a desire to get at truth or to get at something that entails truth, Khalid and Snyder offer no good reason why we should value free speech. And I don’t think they can.