Jerry Coyne's Discussion of Free Speech and Universities

I’ve often disagreed with Jerry Coyne, but regarding his latest crusade, which has yielded several articles, I find him to be largely on the side of the angels.

He understands the dangers that threaten freedom of speech and thought in modern universities. He has written some scathing articles against those who would try to suppress such freedom in the name of political correctness or “Wokeness.”

Here is one of his recent pieces:

In the piece, he quotes from his university’s Kalven Report, which offers some stirring words about universities, scholars, and freedom of thought and inquiry:

"The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

“Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.”

Some of the statements in this report capture what I have tried to communicate in the past here about the dangers of whole departments being captured by one monolithic view of a subject. I particularly like:

A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.

and

It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy.

These are beautiful and true words, but unfortunately they are not the basis of the collective behavior of many academics, particularly in humanities and social science departments, where diversity of viewpoints is shrinking, not growing, and where social activism of a certain kind shapes both curriculum and hiring. Jerry’s examples, in his recent columns, have tended to focus on abuses of political correctness within the science side of academia, and that is appropriate, since the science side is the one he knows up close and personal, but the problem is not just in science; it’s university-wide.

Therefore, strange to say, people as different as Jerry and myself can be allies. We might disagree on evolution, intelligent design, religion, and other things, but we agree on the most important thing (about universities, I mean), which is the need for scholars and scientists to resist all pressures of political correctness and defend only those propositions – popular or not, politically correct or not, “Woke” or not – that they consider, based on reason and evidence, to be true. And not only must they resist those pressures themselves; they must take care not to subject their colleagues and students to those pressures. Indeed, the second thing is more important than the first, because once the pressures are generated, they are often very hard to resist; the penalties for non-compliance are often too severe for even the courageous to hold out against them. Jerry understands this.

When I wrote here about some of these issues before, I was heavily attacked by a number of the atheists here, who explicitly or implicitly denied that there were any systemic biases or any “groupthink” going on in humanities and social science departments. Well, Jerry is an atheist, too, but he’s very alert to the way modern university culture operates, and his perception of the dangers of collectivist thought matches my own lived experience on my side of the campus. I wish him luck in his effort to keep the University of Chicago a true community of scholars, and I wish him all the best in criticizing “Wokeness” wherever it appears in university life around the globe, whether in the sciences or other subjects.

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