We honor the unadulterated joy of our children, and we generally overlook the developmentally inevitable narcissism, because we know: Soon enough, life will beat it out of them.
But there are some things children need to be taught before the insight naturally dawns.
One of those things, it seems to me, is the value of free speech. I just read a recollection of an old Cincinnati Reds fan that pegs the problem pretty well:
“Saw my first game at Crosley Field in probably 1956 when I was seven. They played Chicago and the people sitting beside us were for the Cubbies. I was shocked they weren’t for the Reds and surprised they were allowed to attend.”
I, too, remember sitting in a baseball stadium for the first time, gazing around at all those people and having it dawn on me that every last one of those countless sets of eyes and ears was having its own total and complete experience, just as I was: a totally unique experience, from their own position in the stadium, their own point of view on the game, their own age and gender and feelings and thoughts. Just as centered in their universe as I was in mine!
But what on earth would have made me care passionately, at that young moment, that every one of these strangers would feel free to share whatever was in their strange heads, with whoever was in earshot?
Maybe I was nine or 10 when I was introduced, must have been in school, the Voltairean principle, “I wholly disapprove of what you say—and will defend to the death your right to say it.” I remember repeating that in my mind, almost whispering it to myself, turning it over and over like an object that seemed somehow confounding yet undeniably beautiful.
I was interested this week to read (and publish, in Vital Speeches of the Day) the inaugural speech of the president of Dartmouth College, Sian Leah Beilock. Promoting free speech on campus is one of her priorities, she said:
In a recent survey, a majority of college students thought free speech and diversity and inclusion were at odds with one another. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. You can’t have the former without the latter …
We cannot squash an idea simply because there’s a certain faction of our community that doesn’t like it, or stifle dialogue on a controversial topic because it makes people uncomfortable. To the contrary, we must foster an environment where ideas of integrity are responsibly aired and debated …
Having spent 12 years at the University of Chicago—as a faculty member and then as an administrator—I often hear the Chicago Principles cited as the de facto standard for the free and open exchange of ideas on campuses around the nation. While I believe it’s essential that we, as an institution, live by the spirit of these principles, they don’t go far enough.
At Dartmouth, we will move beyond simply safeguarding freedom of expression to facilitate, practice, and teach dialogue across difference.
Next month, Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Elizabeth Smith, will launch a new signature program known as the Dartmouth Dialogue Project. This project will intentionally teach the skills of open, honest and respectful communication, both in and out of the classroom. One of our initiatives this year is to support faculty in teaching controversial topics in their courses, and to develop a co-curricular transcript where undergraduates will be able to document their achievements in developing dialogue skills.
I’m interested but skeptical. First, it’s hard to teach “dialogue skills” in the abstract, and dangerous to teach them in the specific. But let’s assume Dartmouth finds brilliance in this area. I’m still skeptical, because I think college is a little too late to learn that basic Voltaire concept. That concept must come “before the wax is completely dry,” as the writer Rebecca McCarthy put it, in an essay about her teenage mentoring by the writer Norman Maclean (a Dartmouth grad himself, coincidentally).
Is a college student’s wax completely dry? One hopes not. But is it still wet enough to engulf a an idea as psychologically radical (yet civically essential) as Voltaire’s?
Elizabeth Smith and her colleagues at Dartmouth, it seems to me, are about to find out. I’ll be watching. And I reached out to Dr. Smith on LinkedIn, because despite my doubts, I wouldn’t mind participating, too.