To the Editor:
Your article, “Presidents Are Changing Their Tune on Free Speech” (The Chronicle, May 3) is crafted around the omission that is common in most reviews of “free speech” controversies on college campuses: That omission is consideration of the historic and global context that make the concept of “free speech” itself, questionable.
Relevant to this controversy is that post World War II, so many of my peers and I who became college professors in the humanities and social sciences (and are currently retiring and/or dying out as a generation of mentors of graduate students who become professors) pursued our own college educations with our primary goal being study (for understanding) of the array of social contexts — historical, political, cultural, literary, psychological, and spiritual — that “construct” what is considered to be “knowledge.” Following, for instance, Columbia University’s famous and horrific legitimization of Mussolini, and the collusion of other U.S. universities with the 20th century rise of fascism in Europe, my peers and I at the University of Rochester were exposed to the word and concept “fascism,” in numerous courses (my) freshman year, the same year, 1969, that classes were canceled mid-spring-term so that students could participate in the National Petition Campaign effort to end the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.
While even the administration of many elite colleges were vocal in their support of professors who understood the structural critique of that war to be correct — that that war was motivated by racism and imperialism, with its ultimate goal the acquisition of new sources of exploitation for profit-making by the few, the absence of these concepts too — “racism,” “profit-making,” and “imperialism” — is notable in your article and the many like it today in other mainstream national media considering the issue of “free speech.” The vocabulary of structural critique, as opposed to liberal critique, is absent, even though the actual conflicts currently being navigated by college administrators are between these two increasingly oppositional modes of critique.
Today, despite the allowance of limitless exploitation of both humans and the environment for enrichment of the few built into the structure of governmental policy — the defining aspect of fascism — voiced by global leaders like Orban, Netanyahu, Erdogan, Modi, Duda, and in the U.S., those of the current Republican Party still ruled by Trump, and the speech emitted on their behalf by many actual and potential U.S. campus speakers, this article, and the words you quote from college presidents, discuss the concept of free speech in the mode of the context-free speech often called “liberal” speech.
When speech is context-free we promote the lie that all speakers’ words are equally weighted regardless of the funding sources and structural interests (like social class, race, male, and heterosexual supremacy) that propel them. Yet, we already know that our current — literally deadly — national climate policy is trapped in this fallacy, where a tiny percentage of deniers are funded by the (upper class) oil lobby, and the overwhelming majority of science-backed realists are underfunded precisely because we must disrupt business-as-usual to insure our survival on the planet. We understand, similarly, that levels of income inequality and worker exploitation (through absence of a guaranteed living wage) are both unconscionable and like climate change, non-sustainable: We know that seriously challenging current levels of structural inequality will require disruption of business-as-usual.
Isn’t it clear, then, that the education our students need right now — the education that needs the support of college administrators — is an education rich in complicating context — education that will, for starters, help them interrogate the obfuscation inherent in the concept, “free speech”?
Professor Emerita of Educational Studies