The demise of the College: How the College fails to stay true to the ideals of a liberal arts education

I have never in my career at the College been embarrassed to be associated with it. But now I find that no longer to be true. Let me explain.

My first year at the College was the last year of the long and illustrious career of Frederick L. Schuman, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government. Years earlier in the fraught ’50s, when the “Red Scare” was in full force, some alumni of a conservative stripe demanded that the College fire “Fred the Red.” Schuman had taken progressive positions and had been called before the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities, irking some alumni (and no doubt others). To his credit, then President James Phinney Baxter rejected that demand.

Now we have a president who assigns himself the role of College censor, setting “the line” wherein some can be prevented from talking to the College public. Dean Sarah Bolton tells us not to be concerned because this is only a rare event, that the line is far out there. I presume by that she means that those who espouse “our beliefs” need not worry.

But the definition of political tolerance has long been straightforward: one supports the rights of all but precisely those we find objectionable. We measure political tolerance by seeing whether those proclaiming their tolerance are willing to uphold all political and civil rights for those they find objectionable, whether “they” can give talks, hold rallies, run for office, securely rely on the protection of the laws and more. There is no “line” beyond which we can withdraw those rights because “we” share President Adam Falk’s “outrage” (and here the “we” in Falk’s diatribe means “me, Adam Falk”). His missive exemplifies his intolerance. To that he adds the command that we respect his authority to impose his outrage, no matter how widely or narrowly shared, on the entire community.

Falk speaks of the need to secure social tolerance. This is an essential and, especially at a residential college, vital task. People should feel secure and comfortable here, should receive – at the very least – civility, if not authentic caring and empathy. It is appropriate that the administration strengthens social tolerance where and when it should and where and when it can (in first-year orientation, on Claiming Williams Day, etc.). But social tolerance is not the only form of tolerance to be taught and protected. There are other forms of tolerance that advance conflicting norms and require different skills. They cannot be reconciled.

These two other forms of tolerance are essential if this is to be a liberal arts college. One of these is intellectual tolerance, experienced in the classroom and its other venues. It is in the circumstances of learning that we expose ourselves and our students to new and challenging ideas, ones that are both old and new, that may prove to be uncomfortable for some.

But most important is political tolerance. Political tolerance flows from the understanding that liberal democracies are bedeviled – like all regimes – by the human lack of foresight. We are best served when we begin with as many ideas from as many sources as possible. The public forum is the place where we test these ideas. By asserting that some ideas are out of bounds, Falk asserts the authority to bury the ideas of his choosing. He invitingly asks us to shun the objectionable. But to the extent we indulge the natural attraction of the familiar and comfortable, we infantilize ourselves.

The doctrine of free speech is not merely a negative principle. But political tolerance is also a positive principle. A free people become so by learning how to competently engage in public, competitive, even hostile, discourse; how to sift the stronger from the weaker; how to use conflictual disputatious citizenship to reveal hidden and corrupt motives and, in sum, how to best use the public space for contestation. But these practices are not natural. In his stance, Falk sells our students short.

Allowing this administration to mysteriously determine the boundaries of what “we” tolerate leaves our students unprepared to learn the practice of the liberal arts of citizenship. These skills of citizenship are evidently sorely lacking in the College student body. Tolerant citizens do not tolerate a regime that requires political speech, and posters are just one form of political speech, to be vetted before being allowed. A politically tolerant student body would not tolerate an administration that proclaims it has first and final say over who can be invited to this campus to give an expressly political talk. A politically tolerant citizen would not demand that this or that individual that he or she finds obnoxious be prevented from coming to this campus. A politically tolerant student would not demand that all groups be “vetted” by the administration before they are allowed to organize. A student newspaper competent in the skills and practices of a free press would not go to a senior member of the administration to examine the soundness of a decision made by the senior member of that administration and publish a story that inquired no further.

The liberal arts are the arts that make you free. And among the arts that make you free are those that enable you to learn how to deal with contentious conversation, how to inquire, speak, lead, follow and act as an autonomous citizen rather than, as the current local norm seems to have it, demand to be protected against discomfort. The norms of social, intellectual and political tolerance conflict and that adds to the complexity of being at a liberal arts college. We all need to learn to navigate between these contrary norms with practiced competence. It would behoove us all – students, faculty and administrators – to repair the self-inflicted damage and become, once again, a true liberal arts College. But that requires leadership. To that end we need an administration that understands and acts on its many obligations.

George E. Marcus is a professor of political science.

Comments (11)

  1. I certainly admire George Marcus for writing this letter. I only have one quick comment. According to one of his reviewers, Frederick L. Schuman reportedly vilified Trotsky and the Left Opposition that opposed Joe Stalin. In retrospect, the views of Schuman were extremely dangerous compared to the common sense musing of John Derbyshire. It is difficult to understand why Schuman had a long career at Williams College, while the innocuous Derbyshire was not even allowed to step foot on the grounds.

  2. No one here is being censored. Adam Falk isn’t a state actor, and doesn’t have the ability to bring legal force against a person because of their speech. John Derbyshire was invited to our campus with the explicit purpose of disseminating hate speech against People of Color. Adam Falk made it clear that the college would not implicitly endorse this action, expressly designed to hurt non-white students, by providing the venue, a microphone, etc. President Falk did not “ban” Derbyshire. Mr. Wood is free to host a white supremacist off campus, paying for a venue which will host him. I’m just thankful that my college decided not to act against members of its community that have the right to be treated with equal dignity.

  3. “…the practice of officially examining books, movies, art etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts.”

    Abel- and with the covering of art and the consideration of historic monuments?

    Certainly those who placed murals in ‘the log’ are being censored. No doubt about that. The covering of the mural at the log is the very definition of censorship.

    You may agree or disagree with such censorship, but to argue that it is not is simply not true.

    Putting plywood over a mural so it cannot be seen is not censorship? What is then?

  4. Abel- No answer?

    Really. Please explain how this process of reviewing monuments with the consideration of removing them, banning speakers and covering up murals is not censorship?

    Explain that…

  5. Really Prof Marcus, it is X-dOUble-minus bad to speak of such things.

    You should know better than to speak about poorly about censorship….

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