Higher Education

Greg Forster, Ph.D. | March 1, 2017

Is illiberal education a public good?

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

Oklahomans agree that liberal education—education that helps people grow as rational beings who know truth—is a public good. That’s why they give their hard-earned tax money to subsidize schools like the University of Oklahoma. But universities’ status as a public good depends entirely on their providing a liberal, not an illiberal, education. OU increasingly provides the latter, so Oklahoma taxpayers would be wise to consider alternative ways of supporting liberal education in their state.

OU President David Boren has announced that he wants “hate speech” reported to the university’s police department. In the illiberal environment cultivated by OU leadership, “hate speech” doesn’t mean Klansmen burning crosses on front lawns. One OU professor called the police after being handed an evangelistic tract; that’s core speech about ideas if anything is. OU Vice President Jabar Shumate has made comments suggesting support for Donald Trump is “hate speech.” And of course all this is on top of the dense layers of one-sided indoctrination about diversity and sexual identity to which all students at OU, like at almost every other American university, are required to submit.

Recently, OU expelled students for using racial epithets, in flagrant violation of long-established First Amendment law. Six months later, the university paid $40,000 for a performance by a hip-hop artist who uses the same derogatory epithets. He also insults homosexuals, brags about physically abusing women in their genitals (hello, Donald Trump supporters!), and calls for the murder of police officers. Respect and toleration for others apparently go only one way at OU.

The question here is not whether the people targeted by OU in these cases are right or wrong. The question is whether OU believes that wrong ideas are best corrected and right ideas are best vindicated through open discussion and debate in a social atmosphere of free inquiry for all sides. The particular merits of the speech acts at issue in these controversies are, here as always, irrelevant to the question of whether everyone ought to have free speech.

It is sometimes argued that because the university needs to maintain a special kind of social environment for the sake of education, it can be justified in placing stricter limits on speech—for the sake of maintaining mutual respect and social harmony. It is true that a university needs to maintain a special kind of social environment for the sake of education. The big question is whether an educational environment ought to be one that values freedom of speech less than other environments, or more.

Liberal education is distinguished from illiberal education in a principle well stated by Thomas Jefferson when he founded the University of Virginia: “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

Oklahoma taxpayers, take note: Jefferson tied the university’s financial subsidies to its mission of pursuing “the illimitable freedom of the mind.” He said that it was to support this freedom of thought, and the increase of knowledge that only it could produce, that the university’s financial supporters were ponying up to ”provide for the professors separate buildings in which themselves and their families may be handsomely and comfortably lodged, and to liberal salaries will be added lucrative perquisites.” Only the liberal quality of the education at U.Va. would make it worth such a high price.

For Jefferson, this freedom depended on transcendent concepts of truth and reason. Truth is not merely a social construct or human invention. It is something that we “follow,” not something we create or control. Freedom of the mind means the freedom of reason to discover and conform to—not make—the truth. For human thought, there is no other freedom.

Although the university produces useful technical knowledge, it is only this philosophy of freedom that truly makes liberal education a public good. Liberal education’s philosophy of the freedom of the mind establishes the grounds of our broader political freedom.

In Jefferson’s time, few institutions were dedicated to the production of new technical knowledge, so universities were needed for that reason as well (a point he emphasized in his description of U.Va.). Today, because of the worldwide revolution in social order in which the American founding played a leading role, we have everything from Apple and Google to the Gates Foundation, which is now closing in on global eradication of malaria. True, lots of the scientists are still housed in universities; but if their only value was producing technical knowledge and we needed to find other places for them to do that, it wouldn’t be very hard.

If there is still a unique need for universities, it’s not because they produce technical knowledge. It’s because liberal education propagates a philosophy of freedom on which our public order depends. The mind’s freedom is, as Jefferson says, “illimitable” because the use of force and perception of the truth are mutually exclusive. If you command me to profess Belief X, by doing so you destroy the social environment in which it is possible for me to use my reason to investigate whether Belief X is true. The philosophy that freedom is necessary for discovery of truth is the basis of a free society in which law and government are kept in their proper places.

A hundred years ago, educator J. Gresham Machen summed up the connection between liberal education and political freedom: “Reasonable persuasion can thrive only in an atmosphere of liberty. It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument. He will very naturally be in no mood to appreciate our argument until we lay aside our club.” Machen even testified to the U.S. Congress against a scheme for federal control of education on grounds that it would remove freedom for diverse ideas in education. (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)

Against all this stands illiberal education. It begins with the view that truth is constructed, not discovered; that places truth under the authority of social institutions, not the mind’s reason. Education therefore does not require a social environment of freedom but one of control and domination. This is not (at least at first) out of a merely selfish desire for indoctrination. It is out of a sincere conviction that freedom of thought produces only incoherence and fragmentation, not knowledge. If the human mind does not have a power of reason able to discover truth, we ought to demand a strong social authority because that will be our only source of knowledge.

If this illiberal view of human nature were right, highly controlled social environments such as OU would become islands of harmony and agreement. The continual degeneration of such institutions into fiercer and fiercer conflict, leading to schemes of indoctrination and brutal suppression of dissent, shows how wrong the illiberals are. Just look at how the attempt to create a women’s march on Washington ahead of the Trump inaugural was torn apart by infighting among the mutually hostile factions that make up the coalition of the illiberal left. The illiberal project eats itself, as parties fight each other to control the social instruments of indoctrination.

It is in schools—and nations—where speech is free and inquiry is “illimitable” that debates tend to become more civil, mutual respect and toleration grow, and common ground is eventually discovered. That’s because such environments encourage people to trust each other. Freedom of speech signals to people that they can have confidence they are respected and valued in spite of disagreements. This is the only possible basis of community. Debates become most acrimonious and destructive when people believe that those on the other side want to stamp out their point of view by force.

If OU doesn’t uphold the basic principle of liberal education, it undermines our political freedom and is the opposite of a public good. There are plenty of ways the taxpayers of Oklahoma could support liberal education in their state without direct subsidies to OU; for example, they could more fully voucherize their support for higher education, so Oklahoma students and parents, not any particular schools, are the beneficiaries. Absent a change at OU, Oklahomans might want to make use of their illimitable freedom of the mind to consider such alternatives.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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