Parents and Protests: Reflections on the Exuberance of Student Speech


Audience at Trinity University

by Joseph M. Knippenberg

I have followed with interest, but thankfully from a distance, the back and forth regarding speakers recently invited to the Trinity campus.  Beginning with last year’s Milo Yiannapoulos extravaganza (not sure what to call it), and extending to this year’s lectures by Ryan Anderson and Dinesh D’Souza, the campus has been roiled by controversy. Should the speakers have been invited in the first place?  Do students have a right to protest them? Does that right extend to shouting them down, as happened to Charles Murray recently at Middlebury College? Or is the appropriate response to listen respectfully to what they have to say, and then challenging them vigorously and rigorously in the question period?

I think you can tell where I’m going by the way I posed my questions, but let me begin by laying my own cards on the table. I’ve been a Trinity parent since 2014, a college professor since 1985, and a campus denizen of one sort or another since 1974. Though I have on a few occasions demonstrated for or against particular points of view, I have never protested a speaker. I have, to be sure, hosted a speaker students regarded as controversial, so I know something of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of student hostility. (To be clear, you couldn’t pay me enough to be in that position day in and day out.  My skin is thick, but not that thick.)

I am committed to a vision of a college as a place of learning that requires the free and full exchange of ideas and opinions. Some—but most emphatically not all—of that goes on in the classroom, which requires that I both encourage students to tell us what’s on their minds and articulate points of view that they may find challenging and sometimes even repugnant. Students in my classes will read and talk about Aristotle’s defense of natural slavery and Thomas Hobbes’s snarky critique of the Greek philosopher’s inegalitarianism, Alexander Stephens’ critique and Abraham Lincoln’s defense of the egalitarian reading of the Declaration of Independence, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s argument that a right to same-sex marriage is found in the Constitution and the dissenters’ searching criticisms of that position. My approach to teaching requires me to make it difficult for students to take the easy way out. It’s not good for them not to have to wrestle with and respond to serious challenges to the truths they happen to believe are self-evident. Not to confront those challenges as serious alternatives is to hold their views as mere opinions and to be incapable of thoughtfully and articulately defending them. Stated another way, a genuinely liberal education requires that students come to understand, so far as possible, the reasons for the opinions they have. And that requires, as I have said, that they consider the arguments for their opinions as live arguments with serious opponents, not as unchallenged and hence effectively dead dogmas.

But I’m really here to talk about what goes on outside the classroom, which constitutes a very important part of every student’s education. I have some preferences there too, but much less—indeed almost no—control. Leaving aside the dorm room conversations that go on way past my middle-aged bedtime, let’s focus on those pesky invited speakers. Sometimes faculty like me do the inviting, but often it’s the students. I know what I want—smart, articulate, thoughtful speakers who will do from a different point of view and perhaps better what I’m trying to do in the classroom. I’ve been there and done that a lot—both as the organizer of lecture series and conferences that have as their principal audience the college’s undergraduates and as an invited lecturer (offer me a little money and a nice meal, and I’ll think of something more or less edifying and educational to say to your students.)

Students are not educators, so that when they invite someone to campus, it may not be to promote the respectable pedagogical aims of the faculty. They may merely want to be entertained, or they may want to be fed some ideological red meat by someone who vividly and effectively articulates what’s on their minds. The talks may not be intentionally educational, and sometimes they’re not even all that informative, but I’m here to tell you that that’s OK. Your hard-earned tuition dollars are not being wasted.  (Let me hasten to clarify something, lest I be misunderstood: in many cases—indeed, in all the controversial recent Trinity cases, if I’m not mistaken—the funds that pay for the speakers are provided by external organizations.  All that the University is doing is permitting the event to occur on its campus. Your tuition dollars are literally not paying for Milo, or Ryan Anderson, or Dinesh D’Souza.)

So why are these sorts of talks a good thing? First of all, they provide a kind of practical learning experience for our students. They learn how to deal with all the complicated logistical arrangements of hosting an event; they learn how to organize support and/or opposition for the speaker’s point of view; and they may even learn how to manage conflict with friends on the other side of the fence. These are important civic skills that can’t as readily be cultivated in the classroom. Yet if we don’t somehow cultivate them, we risk losing some of what it takes to be a self-governing people.
Second, we faculty aren’t just bystanders here. Because speakers invited and hosted by student groups are (by definition, I suppose) interesting to students, these sorts of events actually engage the students.  They care about them, sometimes quite passionately. And that’s a passion that we teachers can use in the classroom. These are the proverbial teachable moments, when something outside the classroom gets brought inside and becomes the basis for a discussion in which the walls separating the realm of books and ideas from the “real world” are breached. Wow, is that fun!  And, wow, is that important because we don’t have to work all that hard to get our students to care about it! And we can take the material they’ve provided, which they didn’t think of as part of their education, and make it, yes, “educational.”

Let me say one last word about the faculty role. My preference is for hospitable treatment of and respectful engagement with outside speakers. Whatever may happen “on the street” or at a Congressional town hall, the college setting is supposed to be different. We’re supposed to be collegial, cooperating with one another in the search for the truth. This requires civility, which of course requires a kind of self-restraint. We faculty members certainly should require that civility of ourselves and also of our students, who won’t always get it exactly right. (And that’s OK. I prefer a few unintentional missteps to the resentful self-censorship which doesn’t let anyone actually engage with the question and—perish the thought!—actually learn something.)  So we should attend those controversial lectures and provide a kind of model of civil and critical engagement with those with whom we disagree.  That too is a civic skill, one that we need to cultivate if we are to continue to be able to govern ourselves.

If you want more food for thought, let me recommend the following things:
·         Dean Tuttle’s very useful and timely blog post.
·         Pomona Professor John Seery’s wonderful book, America Goes to College
·         My reflections on Seery’s argument in Democracy Reconsidered

About Joe

Joe Knippenberg is a professor of politics at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, where he has taught since 1985. His son, Liam, is a junior at Trinity, majoring (shockingly) in political science, though he has absolutely no intention of following any further in his dad’s footsteps. Father and son chat frequently, mostly about politics. Recently dad has been working his personal network (friends and former students) to find people in the “real world” with whom Liam can speak about career opportunities. And Liam, with dad’s blessing, is applying for internships this summer. Joe’s wife Lee also teaches at Oglethorpe, in the Core Curriculum and the theatre program, and directs the drama ministry at Oak Grove U.M.C. Their daughter, Charlotte, is a freshman at Wingate University in North Carolina, where she is on the swim team and contemplating a psychology major. You can find some of Joe’s essays at www.libertylawsite.orgwww.thefederalist.com, and www.thepublicdiscourse.com.


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