Drew Phillips, Staff Writer
February 15th, 2017
These are uncertain times for both the Goucher community and the country. As such, it is important to remember our fundamental ideals more than ever. For this reason, I think it is important to address the state of free expression on our campus.
To do this, it is worth going back to an essay in the Washington Post that President Bowen referenced on Facebook earlier this month. Titled “Why pragmatic liberal education matters now more than ever,” the article is a defense of a liberal arts education by Michael S. Roth, President of Wesleyan University. It lists some of the most important facets of a liberal education: Enhancing student’s abilities to translate across ideas and assumptions, providing students a vehicle to share knowledge, empowering individuals to take productive risks, and my personal favorite, the promotion of intellectual diversity “in such ways that students are inspired to grapple with ideas that they never would have considered on their own.” These attributes are of critical importance, especially in the hyper-partisan, ambivalent-to-the-facts world we currently find ourselves in, and the article says as much.
Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more difficult to experience the benefits of a liberal arts education at Goucher. Yes, I encounter diverse perspectives and ideas at this school that I may not have, had I studied elsewhere. However, I increasingly fear that the hunger for knowledge and debate outside of student’s preconceived opinions is taking a backseat to the desire for security in beliefs and inclusiveness in discussion. These things are undoubtedly significant; Yale’s Woodward Report and the University of Chicago’s Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression–two campus speech policies held in high esteem–both highlight mutual respect and civility to discussion and inquiry as important to campus life. Yet, both establish them as far removed in importance from unobstructed freedom of expression that does not come into conflict with the law.
As far as this kind of policy goes at Goucher, the closest thing I can find resembling a defense of free expression, is in the academic honor code which states in the first sentence: “At Goucher, we honor freedom of expression, inquiry, and action.” That’s not particularly robust, and puts free speech on no better footing at our school than the provision of a “safe space,” which Goucher’s mission statement sub-heading of Our Commitments to One Another; Communication suggests that we must place a “premium on maintaining.” Regardless of your opinion on the merits of safe spaces, the lack of prioritization of free expression on our campus will lead to more problems than it has already, the foremost of which is the lack of preparedness of our graduates for the outside world. Several teachers I have spoken to over the course of my three years at Goucher will not bring up certain topics in the classroom, or at least will not push these topics too far if they think it will upset our increasingly sensitive student body. While that is understandable, it is doing an absolute disservice to us as students and the blame for this lies at our feet.
Vigorous debate with few boundaries has become less and less common over my time here, only to be replaced with the reassurance that everyone’s opinion will be heard and treated with the same regard, often to go unchallenged, even if it’s clear that those opinions have no real facts behind them. This may go unnoticed by many people, because this security of opinion is comfortable and we don’t often challenge things that make us comfortable. However, the article which President Bowen shared with his Facebook community did not note fostering comfort as one of the jobs of a liberal arts education; it instead emphasized the importance of “setting a framework for inquiry and exchange that will be a resource for graduates for the rest of their lives.” Ultimately, in turbulent times like these when it is most difficult to keep open channels of debate and discussion, that is precisely what we need to do most.
With all of this in mind, I am also processing the heartfelt message the Goucher College community received from President Bowen on Monday, January 30th, concerning several of President Trump’s most recent executive actions. Putting aside all opinions of the executive policies in question, it was reassuring to see President Bowen’s genuine desire to defend and care for all members of our school, especially those who believe that their ability to attend this institution or reside in this country are at jeopardy due to these executive actions. The section of the message, which specifically grabbed my attention, was toward the conclusion:
“To our Muslim students, in particular, we will defend your right to express your religion freely and without fear…I sincerely wish that I could speak on behalf of our entire nation, but at least at Goucher we condemn policies that discriminate based on religion or country of origin and they have no place in our community. We support our government and the legal and peaceful process of passing and enforcing laws, but it is the role of academic institutions—and, indeed, our moral obligation living in a democracy—to voice our objections when we believe injustice is occurring. As an institution of higher education, we will continue to promote the free exchange of ideas among a community of students and scholars that welcomes citizens from around the world.”
I applaud this statement in its entirety and am glad our college has a leader as committed to these ideals as President Bowen is. This statement in its essence is exactly why we need a clearer free speech policy on campus. We need this not just because everyone has a basic right to express themselves however they choose, regardless of what any politician, professor, or peer thinks, but because if we don’t, uninhibited concern with the desire to protect the welfare of marginalized communities will end up having a converse effect and harming everyone—including marginalized communities. Nobody can argue for or represent these communities better than the members themselves, but this is unlikely to occur without the rigorous thinking and debate which college is supposed to be celebrated for cultivating. If Goucher provides students the four-year option of avoiding conflicting opinions in the classroom and protesting speakers they don’t agree with only to retreat to safe spaces after, they are engendering an atmosphere which comes directly into conflict with the core mission of a liberal arts education. Goucher College is doing its entire student body a disservice if it continues to advertise the promise of this school of thought, while inhibiting the catalyst of free speech, which is exactly what makes it so valuable.
Maybe it’s time for Goucher to revisit its policies on free speech and create something for students, instructors, and administrators alike, that recognizes the primacy of free speech as fundamental to intellectual development, and in doing so, simultaneously preserves and enhances the wellbeing of the entire student body.