An Intellectual Breath of Fresh Air Blows Through Cornell

Finally, some good news.

In the midst of Obama’s dreary, guilt-ridden/innovation-crushing socialism, and stern rebukes combined with subtle threats of intimidation with any and all who disagree, consider this intellectual and psychological breath of fresh air coming out of academia — a very unlikely setting for such a thing, these days.

From the 10/11/15

Calling herself “an avid supporter of freedom of speech,” Elizabeth Garrett — Cornell University’s new president — came out firmly against politically correct censorship last week. Hallelujah.

Meeting with several reporters at a Cornell Club breakfast, Garrett said:

“A university is about the fullest and freest expression of ideas and arguments. There isn’t any idea that ought not to be tested and questioned. Because that’s how we get closer to the truth. We’re about reason, rationality, debate. So if you disagree with someone, the answer isn’t to shut them down . . . I don’t believe there should be any limits on the substance of freedom of speech at a university.”

Garrett’s comments are startling — in a good way. It’s not just that she’s calling for a return to free speech on campuses. She’s naming the basic methodology which makes free speech possible, relevant and desirable: “reason, rationality, debate.”

The prevailing trend, especially on college campuses, has been to shut down dissent with use of the word “hate.” Don’t agree with socialized medicine? You’re a hater. Don’t agree with Obama’s economic or defense policies? You’re a hater. Looking to invite someone to campus who has different ideas from the status quo about the American Constitution, individual rights, history, philosophy, psychology or economics? Shout them down until they no longer agree to come.

Even comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who has never been especially political, is afraid to come to a college campus for fear of offending someone.

There isn’t any idea that ought not to be tested and questioned. (says Garrett)

Absolutely right. Colleges should be debating the pros and cons of socialism, capitalism and other economic systems. Instead of screaming “Shame, shame!” whenever someone dissents or disagrees, or calling principled opponents of Obama’s policies “terrorists,” (as Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, once did), it’s time to open the floor to debate on all subjects.

If academia will not do this, there’s no possibility anyone else will, either. College campuses and universities should be setting the tone for debate, not suppressing it.

Granted, universities are private institutions, or at least they should be. If a private college or educational institution chooses not to invite certain people to teach or speak, it’s absolutely that institution’s right. Refusal to treat your private property as public property is not a violation of the right to free speech.

The reality is that many universities are publicly funded. They should not be, as education and government should be separate, for the same reasons church and state or economics and state should be separate. Nevertheless, given that so many universities do receive tax money, this should — if anything — open the door to all points of view, since people of all points of view pay taxes. In reality, just the opposite has happened.

The shouting down and screaming down nature of any opposition to the prevailing point-of-view, particularly that coming out of the present government in Washington DC, is neither intellectually honest nor academically enriching. It’s not making America a better place. It’s making America a more mindless, ignorant, dull and perpetually/self-consciously fearful place.

Colleges should not be allowed to get away with pretending to be bastions of intelligence and learning if their basic policies are anti-intellectual in nature.

Because that’s how we get closer to the truth.

Once again, Garrett is right on the mark. “The truth” implies that there is objective truth. Even if the truth is not always immediately, perceptually and self-evidently obvious, there still is such a thing as truth. Ironically, the kind of people who dominate government and academia today insist that knowledge is subjective, not objective. They claim that to say or imply otherwise is to be “authoritarian,” mean or rigidly closed.

Yet it’s often the very people who espouse such subjectivism and self-conscious “diversity” who are most often the ones in charge, and the ones involved in shouting down or shutting out any dissenting opinion to the contrary.

As the article in the New York Post points out,

A University of Virginia law-school grad who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Cornell’s 13th president is a true liberal — one who stands for liberty.

Such figures are ever-more rare in academia, where students and college “leaders” increasingly call taboo on anything that might offend delicate sensibilities.

Subjectivism is the view that objective knowledge is impossible. On the surface, some conclude that this leads to tolerance and diversity. “Since there is no one right answer, then everyone will have a say.” But that’s not what has happened in American culture with the rise of subjectivism. Instead, we have turned into a society of people whose university professors and presidents are politically correct, narrow-minded and ruthlessly intolerant of anyone who disagrees with their already formed positions.

Why? It’s actually quite logical. When you shut off the human capacity to reach objectively true and verifiable conclusions, you end up shutting down the very thing Garrett is upholding here: Reason and rationality.

Reason and rationality serve no purpose if objective reality is impossible or unknowable. As reason and reality go by the wayside, you get the walking-on-eggshells, intellectually timid sort of mentality that has come to dominate so much of American culture.

Whatever positions Garrett might hold about this or that subject with which you or I might disagree, on the fundamentals she provides the basis for the means of correction: reason and reality. It’s pathetic that we have reached a point where we have to single out a university president for taking such a rare and radical stand. “She’s in favor of reality, reason, debate and questioning everything and anything. Wow! How rare!”

It’s tempting to be pessimistic here. Those of us who value reason, reality and individual rights have been disappointed (and betrayed) so many times before.

But consider one additional fact reported in the article:

Garrett directly condemned the idea of “trigger warnings” — that is, the claim that professors should alert the kiddies before exposing them to ideas or, worse, literature that might upset them: “What a professor chooses to do in his or her class has my absolute support, even if I don’t agree with them.”

Time will tell if Garrett is as good as her word. Ideas are only meaningful or powerful when put into practice. But her willingness to explicitly take on this absurd and pernicious idea of “trigger warnings” is encouraging.

Essentially, she’s challenging the idea that people are determined by their emotions, and we all must dance around our own (or each other’s ) emotions regardless of the relationship those feelings have with an objective reality.

This is powerful, wonderful and potentially beautiful stuff. Good for Garrett. Let’s wish her the best at Cornell, and hope that she might represent the stirring of a turning point for the life of the mind in American society.


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