The institution of the western university is intimately bound up with debate. The medieval quaestio (what today we would call a formal debate) was, in all its varied forms, a pervasive and defining element of the academic life of the earliest European universities.
Democracy, too, is intimately bound up with debate. As George R. LaNoue notes in his latest book, Silenced Stages: The Loss of Academic Freedom and Campus Policy Debates, the US Constitution was only ratified as a result of the rhetorical skill brought to bear in the Federalist Papers, and of course, it is hardly an accident that the First Amendment guarantees free speech. LaNoue supplies, over the course of the book, many quotations testifying to the importance of free speech and specifically free debate for the proper functioning of a democracy. He insists that, to be engaged citizens, students “must be encouraged to move beyond their ideological silos, and those of their faculty, to hear policy debates by speakers who know the issues and respectfully disagree with each other on some points.” (106)
Perhaps the most insightful argument of the book—made largely through quotations—is that free speech is not a left- or right-wing issue. He provides full-throated defenses of free speech from John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Michael Bloomberg, among others. Indeed, he notes a curious reversal in the politics of free speech on American campuses. In the middle of the 20th century, free speech was largely a progressive cause, and the academy was united in defending free speech against outside, largely conservative, influences demanding censorship. In recent years, free speech has become a conservative cause, and the academy is frequently complicit in censorship of dissenting, often conservative, voices.
Silenced Stages proceeds in three chapters. The first chapter (which takes up almost half of the book) is a wide-ranging discussion of free speech in the context of the American university. It gives particular attention to a dizzying number of headline-generating controversies that arose from 2014–2018 in which college students sought—by various means and often effectively—to censor speech they deemed offensive.
In chapter two, LaNoue reports on a study he conducted, which surveyed university calendars to determine the number of public debates and forums (with particular attention to forums that feature speakers with probably differing positions) held on select university campuses in 2014 and 2015. He concludes not only that there are relatively few such debates, but that “some issues debated everywhere else in society (e.g., “immigration, abortion, government financing, international trade, sexual assault, affirmative action, and even gun policies”) are rarely debated at all on these campuses.” “For most students in American higher education, the opportunity to hear on-campus debates about important public policy issues does not exist.” (61, 68)
LaNoue notes that campuses with law schools stand out, particularly with the support of the right-leaning Federalist Society and left-leaning American Constitutional Society hosting many debates. He also notes that top national universities, with large endowments and often with dedicated research centers, tend to have disproportionately more policy debates, though he notes these are often not geared towards undergraduates. (62–63)
In the short, final chapter, LaNoue suggests various courses of action to a number of stakeholders in order to remedy this lacuna in undergraduate education. For trustees of universities, he recommends the promotion of transparency on the issue of campus debate through the adoption of new reporting requirements. (108–111) For faculty and external funders, he recommends sponsoring more on-campus debates, and he draws particular attention to the recent work of the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. (111–113) He also recommends that, since higher education is, at the moment, a buyer’s market, students and their families ask pointed questions about school sponsorship of on-campus policy debates as they choose a school. (113–114).
While he concludes that most undergraduates are not exposed to vigorous debate of timely and controversial topics, LaNoue does not adequately consider various undergraduate organizations that exist to provide just such debates for undergraduates.
LaNoue writes that “Ivy League universities had a tradition of student [sic] debating about public policy beginning in the nineteenth century” but then informs us that “that tradition of substantive and significant student debating for broad audiences has been almost entirely abandoned.” (47)
I find this assertion perplexing. At his own alma mater, there is the Yale Political Union (YPU), which describes itself as, “a non-partisan debate forum dedicated to showcasing voices from across the political spectrum…to express passionate disagreement with civility”; it further claims to be “the largest student group on Yale’s campus.” The YPU and its member parties are not one of the competitive debate teams that LaNoue (rightly) dismisses as “not intended to provide in-depth analysis of any subject or to expose the general student body to important national policy alternatives.” (48)
Yale University was not included in LaNoue’s study because its calendar was not accessible, but had the YPU debates (and the debates of its seven ideologically diverse member parties) been included in the tally, it alone would have at least doubled, if not tripled, the total number of campus debates recorded in each year across all 97 campuses covered by the study.
Organizations like the YPU are not unique to Yale; Harvard has a political union with a similar mission (both were modeled on Oxford’s and Cambridge’s unions), while south of the Mason-Dixon, Georgetown has the Philodemic Society and the University of Virginia has not one but two such societies: the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society and the Washington Literary Society and Debating Union.
Neither are such student debate societies restricted to large, well-endowed institutions founded in the 18th century: even at my own small and recently founded alma mater (Christendom College founded in 1977 with scarcely more than 500 undergraduate students), the Chester-Belloc Debate Society hosts well attended, public debates throughout the semester.
Such intramural debate societies do not, of course, exist on all campuses, neither do they always flourish and effectively nurture the robust conflict of ideas they were founded to foster. Columbia University’s Political Union has, for example, recently been criticized by the Columbia Spectator for being too politically homogeneous to offer debates worthy of the name.
The Columbia Spectator’s critique, however, brings to the fore another perplexing omission from the book: campus journalism. Many campuses have a more or less robust system of publications that often serve as a venue for polemical pieces arguing controversial topics. While such papers do not provide the emotion and pressure of viva voce debate, and while they are not uniformed in their policies concerning free speech or in the quality of the articles they publish, they nonetheless can and sometimes do provide an important forum for serious, articulate debate of controversial issues of moment. (The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is noteworthy for its activity in fostering such student publications.)
Although LaNoue does recognize the importance of student publications as an instance of free speech on campus, he explicitly sets such campus publications aside without explanation when studying the prevalence of debate on campuses and, moreover, they find no place in his recommendations.
It is not a reviewer’s place to tell a scholar what research project he ought to have undertaken, but I do find fault in drawing general conclusions about undergraduates’ opportunity to witness vigorous argument about important policy issues without considering these forums of debate. I also find fault in then proceeding to make specific recommendations about how to foster free speech and debate on campus without adverting to these most obvious venues.
Thus, while I am more than sympathetic to the book’s theses that a culture of vigorous debate is important for democracy and that facing compelling arguments that challenge our opinions is integral to intellectual formation—and therefore that debate and free speech deserve to be fostered in institutions of higher education—I find its omissions disappointing, leaving the book wanting and the reader longing for a more thorough investigation.
For those in the Washington, D.C. area, the Bipartisan Policy Center is hosting a book discussion on Silenced Stages in the morning on July 30th. More information is available here. Professor La Noue will be a panelist for the conversation.
George R. LaNoue, Silenced Stages: The Loss of Academic Freedom and Campus Policy Debates. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2019. $21.00.