Speech and Challenges: Universities Must be Free to Inspire Both
Philadelphia Inquirer, September 26, 1999
What's the point of a university?
Is it only to cram a society's settled opinions into the minds of young adults, to prepare them to ease smoothly into the workplace once they've snagged a diploma?
Or is it also to spur those minds to become more agile and powerful, capable of challenging and improving upon the received wisdom, able to stretch the boundaries of theory and research?
Or to put it another way, does controversial ethicist Peter Singer belong at Princeton University?
Princeton obviously thinks so, since it hired the Australian thinker as a professor of bioethics.
Members of Not Dead Yet, an advocacy group for the disabled, angrily disagree. They chained themselves to a campus building Tuesday, waving signs with epithets such as "Hitler" and "murderer." The usual film-at-11 histrionics.
At issue is what Mr. Singer has written - or what Not Dead Yet chooses to believe he has written - about euthanasia for the disabled. His views are no doubt unsettling. In his well-known book Practical Ethics, he argues that parents of a severely disabled infant may, depending on circumstances, be ethically justified in choosing euthanasia for their child. His discussion is careful and nuanced but disturbing and debatable nonetheless.
Not that many of the protesters bothered with nuance - or even with actually reading Mr. Singer's work before calling for his head on a pike. All most of them had seen or heard was snippets from Web sites.
It was yet another example of the self-righteous style of ignorant, kneejerk protest that has given many good causes a bad name and become a bane of our democracy.
Issues of disability or euthanasia are tangled and emotional. One job of the ethicist is to test our complacent assumptions about right and wrong against such acute situations. We wouldn't need philosophers if our conventional wisdom always proved reliable, or if science, medicine and politics didn't constantly throw off new puzzles. But our guesses stumble; our world surprises. It helps to have guides with the wit and the guts to scout intellectually the tricky terrain that will soon rise to confront us.
That Mr. Singer is such an explorer, not a polemicist for euthanasia, is clear in his book - and his measured response to the protest.
To defend Mr. Singer's presence at a great American university is not to defend his views, nor to declare them off-limits for criticism. Probing the soundness of any unorthodox view is a vital part of scholarly debate. And it is to the peril of their souls that universities have tinkered with ideological clampdowns on speech.
Protest is the First Amendment's lifeblood. But when protest seeks to silence others' speech, rather than engage it in dialogue, it founders.
The protesters want Mr. Singer fired. Besides Not Dead Yet, these include Steve Forbes, who vows to close his fat wallet to his alma mater over this affair. Princeton is unequivocally right to respond to them, "Sorry, the professor stays."
To let ideological protest short-circuit the academic dialogue that will in the end judge the worth of the man's views would be to violate Princeton's mission as a university.
College professors should not indoctrinate, and few students fall for it when they try. The teacher's job is to inspire intellectual ferment in students who don't taste it often enough in their drably utilitarian educations.
That's the point of a university. If more Americans, inside and outside the ivied walls, don't grasp that point, "American university" might someday be a rueful oxymoron.