Over the past few years, a plethora of news accounts has exposed serious restrictions on free speech and debate on our campuses. University speech codes, restrictive “free-speech zones,” and commencement speaker “disinvitations” threaten to undermine our schools’ defining mission: the free, nonpartisan quest for truth, that is, the Socratic vision from which liberal education originated.
There is no more pressing issue in higher education today. If free speech and debate die on our campuses, they will come in time to die in the public square, dooming self-government.
The model for higher education currently threatened is born of Socrates’ proposition that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” It is no accident that the words “liberal” and “liberty” share the same root: Liberal education, for Socrates, is an education in and through liberty. The highest purpose of liberal education is to foster the freedom of the mind, that is, freedom from unexamined assumptions—e.g., swings in intellectual fashion, partisan politics, and ideology. Liberty at its peak is thus identical with the pursuit of truth.