The Freedom Project, with its speaker series that reflects a range of controversial ideas, has itself become a source of controversy on the Wellesley campus and beyond. A front-page “Boston Globe” article in early February featured the project as the poster child for the efforts of the billionaire Koch brothers to infiltrate colleges with their right-wing political views. And just last week, students staged a protest against one of its speakers, historian of medicine Alice Dreger.
Those who blast the Freedom Project have every right to take aim against a program founded to protect the full sweep of opinions on our campus, including opinions that oppose it. But all sides should be heard. Here is why I support the Freedom Project and believe that it is vital that Wellesley students have access to the views of its speakers, even when these are sometimes difficult to hear.
First, there is no better way to refine and confirm one’s own opinions than to test them against the most powerful counter-arguments that can be mustered.
This is hard work, so it is not surprising that students report being tired and distracted when they do it. But a healthy dustup is sometimes the best thing that can happen to an evolving set of positions. In my own life, I have frequently found myself in intellectually hostile territory. As a rebellious young person, I chafed against my conservative family. As a PhD student at the very traditional University of Virginia, I felt out of place as a feminist. But I also knew the earnestness and intelligence of many libertarian positions too well to feel comfortable with the caricatures of these that I saw at liberal places, like my undergraduate institution Stanford University, or, yes, at Wellesley College, where I have served on the faculty for 35 years.
Over time, I have gone from frustration at these experiences of alienation to gratitude for the way they have shaped and extended my understanding. I know that there are students from conservative backgrounds on our campus who feel intimidated by the prospect speaking out and crushed when they do express their views. I know what that feels like, and I worry about these students, but I worry more about those who may never confront serious ideas that challenge their core convictions—and who will not therefore have the opportunity to grow intellectually from the friction of opposition.
Second, confronting opinions with which we disagree can change our minds. In a country whose citizens increasingly live inside ideological “bubbles” on both the left and the right, all of us badly need the intellectual humility that comes from the shock of realizing that we may be wrong even about cherished beliefs.
Fortunately the Freedom Project has brought some of the finest contrarian intellects to our campus over the past five years—and so students of all persuasions have had the chance to hear competing viewpoints and to make their own judgments. While members of the Wellesley community may not agree with each invitation the project has extended, it is hard to look at the list of speakers and not be impressed with their stature, their relevance in today’s world and the variety of angles they take on their subjects. Steven Pinker, one of the most distinguished cognitive psychologists in the world, and Nadine Strossen, a past president of the ACLU, spoke on the importance of freedom of speech. John Stauffer and David Blight, two respected scholars and writers, discussed that icon of American resistance to oppression Frederick Douglass, and international visiting fellows Mustafa Akyol, Delaram Farzaneh and Shingirai Taodzera, provided their perspectives on human rights in the Middle East and Africa. The project has sheltered these last visitors from real danger in their home countries.
I understand that some viewpoints students have encountered through the Freedom Project feel like assaults on their very humanity. Some argue that students should not have to defend themselves against such dignitary harms.
But I believe that nothing affirms our human dignity more fully than to hear out our opponents and, using reason, stand for truth against falsehood. Nothing is more empowering to an individual than articulating for herself why she believes in something and learning how to make the case for it. Nothing is more humanizing than acknowledging weakness in a beloved argument and growing through doubt. It has filled me with pride to watch Wellesley students line up at the microphone after a Freedom Project lecture to launch their challenges and ask their hard questions.
Today the world is watching college campuses to see if we still uphold the value of free inquiry. These students are our greatest ambassadors.