And, perhaps most serious of all, “an unmistakable impulse of dogmatism has surfaced on campus.” While Daniels doesn’t think there is a full-blown speech crisis on campus, he acknowledges that something is really wrong when, according to a Knight Foundation survey in 2020, 63% of students think that “The climate on their campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.
Daniels’ solutions are hard to dispute. End legacy admissions once and for all. Institute a “demand for democracy” in school curricula. Improve openness in science and reform the peer review process. Curb self-segregation in university accommodation. Create spaces for engagement and promote practices of reasoned disagreement and energetic debate.
So many essential proposals – and all the more necessary in the era of right-wing populism and left-wing illiberalism. Yet I would add two items to Daniels’ list of what universities owe democracy.
The first is a pure and unabashed commitment to intellectual excellence. What prompted Dorian Abbot to act was a colleague’s comment that “if you only hire the best people, you are part of the problem”. But if universities don’t put excellence above all else, they don’t help democracy. they weaken by contributing to the democratic tendency towards group thinking and the mediocrity that can result from trying to please the majority.
The second is courage. I suppose most university administrators would readily subscribe on paper to principles like freedom of speech. Their problem, as in Abraham Lincoln’s parable of a fugitive soldier, is not with their intentions. “I have a heart as brave as Julius Caesar never had,” said Lincoln’s soldier, “but somehow every time danger approaches my legs loose. will run away with it. ” Right now we have a loose legs epidemic.
Courage is not an easily learned virtue, especially in universities, but it can sometimes be molded. After Abbot’s lecture at MIT was canceled, Conservative Princeton professor Robert George offered to host the lecture instead; it is scheduled for October 21 on Zoom.
Courage begins with cancellation. Wisdom, thanks to books like Daniels’s, can then take flight.