2021-06-01

Book Review: "Speak Freely" by Keith E. Whittington

I've recently read the book Speak Freely by Keith E. Whittington, but it has been sitting on my bookshelf for nearly 3 years. This is not a book that I chose for myself, nor is it one that someone to whom I'm close chose for me. Instead, this book is one that the Princeton University president Christopher L. Eisgruber chose for the then-incoming undergraduate class of 2022 as well as all other students, staff, and faculty to read. This in itself was typical; examples include the book Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, which I have reviewed here, and the book Our Declaration by Danielle Allen, which I have reviewed here. Less typical for this book was the fact that the president personally ordered that physical copies be sent to every student (including graduate students, which included me at that time), staff, and faculty; it was commonly understood that the president is a personal friend of the author, who is a professor of constitutional law in Princeton University, and did this as a favor. Furthermore, there was a lot of chatter about this book in the middle of 2018 when this book was mailed to all students, staff, and faculty, just because so many people read it. In such a university with students & faculty who have very progressive (in the US context) political views, a conservative defense of unpopular free speech on university campuses, as expected, was seen as controversial. Personally, a few of my friends did read it and recommended that I not read it because it would be a waste of my time. I admit that these occurrences may have prejudiced my view of this book to some degree, but I genuinely tried to read & understand this book as fairly as possible. Follow the jump to see more.

There is a foreword by Eisgruber himself. Eisgruber praises various aspects of the book, including the recognition that attempts to police campus on speech have not been limited to left-wing activists nor to the most recent 20 years. Eisgruber also criticizes the book for claiming that product discovery in STEM fields is secondary to the goal of universities to produce & disseminate knowledge given that many academic STEM researchers work on applied research & genuinely want to discover new products.

After a preface in which the author gives his own background & briefly sets the stage, the introduction goes over how people of all political views over the last 120 years tried to shape acceptable speech at universities around the world, explains the author's choice to discuss only the practical considerations of universities shaping their own speech (as opposed to legal obligations under the First Amendment, which only applies to government entities including administrators of public universities), and explains the author's choice to focus more on free speech issues relevant to students & invited speakers and less on free speech issues relevant to academic research per se. The first chapter goes over the historical development of universities in the US and acknowledges that there is room for some universities to become more like religious seminaries in imparting specific secular political doctrines. The second chapter argues that free speech is essential to the work of academic scholars expanding the frontiers of knowledge, explains how the Sedition Act of the 1790s illustrated the fallibility of humans practically trying to define "good" versus "bad" speech, and applies such arguments about humility to argue that free speech at universities has the most value for dispassionate listeners of debates. The third chapter discusses examples of trigger warnings, safe spaces, hate speech, campus protests, cancelations of invitations for outside speakers, universities replacing tenured faculty in humanities departments with adjunct professors who are easy to fire in cases of controversy, and tenured faculty being disciplined for controversial comments they make in classroom settings or on social media platforms, explains why these concepts, while valuable when narrowly applied within their original contexts, should not be taken too far, acknowledges the tensions inherent in giving students the opportunity to find respite from debate at "home" when "home" is the entire university, and acknowledges that university administrators & student organization leaders alike should think critically about whether inviting a particular speaker adds to the intellectual development of university members. The fourth chapter recapitulates the main points of the book.

I was not angered to read the book, and at no point did I feel like I needed to stop reading before getting to the end of the book. However, this book did feel disappointing to read because it was basically intellectual fluff. This is true for the following four reasons, of which the first two are most important & closely tied to each other, while the last two are also closely tied to each other.

First and foremost, the author's conception of the purpose & function of a modern American university is admirably idealistic in principle but laughably ignorant in practice. There is no mention of the military-industrial-university complex that grew in WWII & persisted since then. There is no mention of the shift of applied STEM research away from cash-strapped companies toward universities starting largely in the 1980s & continuing since then. There is no mention of how much more funding STEM research requires compared to humanities research, and how such research funding priorities as well as cash flows from collegiate sports at large universities drive the university's overall funding priorities, brand/image, and so on.

Second and equally important, the author provides a laundry list of anecdotes and even more hypothetical scenarios about the harms of things like speech cancelation, trigger warnings, or disciplinary action against controversial professors. However, there are no quantitative arguments to explain whether these occurrences are really that common, and there are certainly no quantitative arguments about how these conflicts are resolved in most cases.

Put together, it is clear why the author feels so baffled by the phenomena he describes: he has an extremely narrow view of academia & its functions as a constitutional law professor (where the point is less about the content of his particular domain of expertise informing his view and more that he is in a bubble like the bubble of any other academic discipline). In the fourth chapter, he comes close to acknowledging the value of quantitative methods, and he does acknowledge that the conflicts described through the book are not representative of students' everyday experiences on campus. If he had gone a little further, he would have realized that accounting for the shifts in funding priorities (especially with respect to corporate grants) would do a lot to explain how universities handle social controversies now and that these sorts of culture wars are only meaningful to universities if it starts to affect their bottom lines through STEM funding or collegiate sports revenues, so most of the time, these conflicts aren't meaningful especially because so much university research funding goes to applied research that is not purely about knowledge for its own sake (contrary to the author's claim). I also got the sense that the author often claims that if universities shirk from their duties to uphold free speech, "something" of value will be lost, but by never engaging with the dominance of STEM funding priorities in universities & only weakly defining what that "something" is, the author unintentionally undercuts the value of humanities scholarship in modern American universities. Furthermore, the author's ignorance of quantitative arguments in this context could (in my narrow, speculative, and biased view) be a reflection of broader inertia in humanities scholarship opposing effective use of quantitative methods (though qualitative methods will always remain important) perhaps due to a fear of being subsumed into other disciplines or cast away as irrelevant. In any case, I recognize that the author can't be an expert on everything about university operations, but writing a book about this issue without having a coauthor who is an expert on these related aspects of university operations seems irresponsible to me. Put another way, writing a book about changing functions of universities while ignoring changing funding priorities would be like an evolutionary biologist trying to explain the quick proliferation of black moths in England in the 1850s while ignoring the quick proliferation of coal-powered factories belching soot into the air.

Third, the author too often uses the appeal to "unorthodox" speech to make readers think of sympathetic left-wing countercultural protesters in the 1960s without acknowledging arguments that "unorthodox" ideas like the supposed genetically-based intellectual inferiority of black people are old enough that purveyors of such ideas in previous generations could easily have shaped policies that negatively affected current students' ancestors. This is related to the author neglecting to mention how many recent purveyors of similarly "unorthodox" ideas are themselves academic researchers whose research (like that about racial bases for intelligence), even if picked apart & debunked, still influences contemporary policies that directly affect students.

Fourth, there are a few specific criticisms I have that may be more typical of left-wing critiques of these ideas. The author's anecdote about a military academy director admonishing but not forcing students who use racial slurs to drop out of the academy unintentionally supports left-wing activists' contention that students who are part of a majority group & behave badly toward students in a minority group are too often not meaningfully punished even if the victims experience much longer-lasting repercussions in the broader context of US history & their families' places in it. The author relies on a familiar conservative trope of praising (only now, in hindsight) mass civil disobedience done by Martin Luther King Jr. but criticizing similar tactics by contemporary student activists. The author never mentions arguments that universities' decisions to invite certain commencement speakers is tantamount to enthusiastically endorsing their past work which may have been used to reinforce problematic societal power imbalances. The author never acknowledges the possibility that historically marginalized minority groups in universities (who experienced marginalization due to group identity) may wish to more proactively combat hate speech and things like that as a way to use the university as a laboratory for experimentally achieving greater social justice that might not yet be possible in broader society. Finally, the examples about how incitements to riot are protected speech seem at odds with actual laws about incitements to violence.

Overall, I'm inclined to agree with my friends that reading this book was a waste of time. I do appreciate that the book was relatively short and that it got me to think about these issues more. However, I think for other readers, this blog post is even shorter and could be as effective in stimulating thought about these issues; I say that not to pompously puff up my own work but more to show how irrelevant this book felt to me. Furthermore, until I start seeing more discussion in popular analysis of quantitative studies of these kinds of restrictions upon free speech in universities, I will be very wary of books that claim to offer insight into this problem, because I was disappointed after reading the book The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols, which I have reviewed here, and I was again disappointed after reading this book.

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