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Keith Whittington
Keith Whittington

Freedom of thought is the lifeblood of a university. Universities are dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge. In order to fulfill that mission, universities must nurture an environment in which scholars can ask difficult questions and follow their evidence and analysis wherever they lead and teachers can expose their students to the unvarnished truth and press them to reexamine their most fundamental commitments. Skepticism of received wisdom and free inquiry into what lies at the boundaries of human knowledge are organizing principles of the university.

The process of free inquiry in pursuit of the advancement of knowledge functions best when diverse voices can be heard. Universities should strive to cultivate that intellectual diversity. Scholarship advances and students learn by exposing ideas to the test of skeptical examination. We should want to see ideas advanced by those who actually believe them and are capable of presenting them in their most thoughtful and persuasive form. We should want to see those ideas dissected by those who are genuinely critical of them and can subject them to the most withering criticism and analysis. Our convictions are most justified when out ideas have withstood careful scrutiny. We benefit from surrounding ourselves with those who disagree with us. We should not merely tolerate disagreement; we should welcome it.

Commencement speakers and common readings have been periodic subjects of controversy on college campuses, with some students objecting that the selections have strayed too far from the political and social mainstream, as they understand it. Particular examples of disputes over speakers and readings have drawn attention to campus intolerance, but such isolated episodes and anecdotal evidence tell us little about how such common features of campus life help shape the intellectual environment that students experience. A more systemic look at these materials can provide some further evidence on how narrow or how broad the intellectual horizons are on American college campuses.

My chapter in the book takes a broad perspective on commencement speakers, assessing nearly 500 speakers invited to American college campuses in the spring of 2017. Colleges invite a wide range of figures to campus to serve as commencement speakers. Some are figures of national or even global renown, but many others are most likely to be familiar primarily to a local audience. Some are known for their ideas and ability to spin words in the public sphere, but many are known more for their actions than for their rhetoric. For some speakers, the strength of their ideas recommends them to speak before a university audience. More often, their record of personal accomplishment brings them to the commencement platform as a symbol of inspiration.

On the whole, universities do not seem to prefer to use the selection of commencement speakers as an opportunity to advance a particular ideological message. Less than a fifth of the spring 2017 speakers in this sample had a clear political orientation, though among those who did the left side of the political spectrum was far better represented than the right. No doubt this is a somewhat conservative estimate, for surely many nominally non-ideological speakers like the heads of nonprofit organizations or artists and authors, have distinct political and social commitments of their own. For many colleges, the safest route appears to be to turn to prominent alumni, wealthy benefactors, and individuals with inspirational life stories.  Pizza magnates, musicians, and astronauts are presumably less likely to stir up protests on campus than presidential aspirants and opinion columnists. But if playing it safe with anodyne speakers is what it takes to allow a graduation ceremony to go off smoothly, then the intellectual climate on college campuses may not be as robust as one would like.

Many American universities have taken to adopting a common summer reading for incoming first-year students. The goals of such programs are various, but they are often used as a vehicle for encouraging students to begin to assimilate into an academic environment even before they reach campus and to provide a common experience for the entire cohort of first-year students. Like social book clubs, common readings are often presented as something other than “homework.” The common book selections have given rise to conservative complaints that the programs are used for ideological indoctrination. On occasion, students object to having to read books that expose them to themes or ideas that they find disagreeable or offensive.  Although college officials emphasize that the summer reading program “isn’t explicitly political,” their choices of readings routinely engage with themes of “social justice” and more often than not from a perspective that conservatives are likely to find objectionable.

My chapter assesses over 400 books selected for summer common reading programs by American colleges. While relatively few commencement speakers appeared on more than one college campus, books were often selected by a number of colleges for their summer reader program.  Indeed, summer reading books have become a sizable business, and commercial publishers have been aggressive in marketing their offerings. It has become apparent that colleges seeking “accessible” and “engaging” books have tended to gravitate toward a distinctive genre of “flavor of the week,” socially conscious, least-common-denominator non-fiction.

Colleges were far more likely to select works of non-fiction rather than fiction for their summer common reading. Vanishingly few, however, assigned scholarly works published by university presses of the type that one might expect to find on a college syllabus and informing current scholarly research. Nor did colleges take the opportunity to assign foundational or canonical works in any of the academic fields of study in which college students might soon be expected to embark. Colleges instead uniformly sent students to the books that might be found on the entryway table at the local Barnes & Noble. Serious commentaries on contemporary society, but nothing that would require any knowledge of the subject matter or lay the foundations for any further study. The selections position the modern undergraduate experience as more akin to Dwight Macdonald’s “middlebrow” culture than Mortimer Adler’s “great books” culture.

Commencement speakers and common readings are not at the heart of the academic mission of the university. They are, however, among the very few common intellectual experiences shared by a cohort of students who are otherwise spread across the fragmentary byways of the modern university. The selection of such speakers and books reflect university values, and the breadth of offerings in those areas says something about the robustness of intellectual life on campus. The evidence suggests that universities rarely use these opportunities to challenge students or push against the predominant climate of opinion on campus. Universities have instead preferred to avoid controversy. They would rather cater to self-satisfaction than unsettle expectations. The safe choice often tilts left, and very rarely tilts right, but most often it simply aims low.

Read Professor Whittington’s essay in The Value and Limits of Academic Speech