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‘Three Reasons to Affirm Free Speech’: Steven Pinker’s Keynote Address for FIRE’s 15th Anniversary

Last Thursday, FIRE and friends gathered in Manhattan to celebrate 15 years of defending and advancing civil liberties on campus. Along with presentations from students who have benefited from FIRE’s assistance and a special address from First Amendment champion Floyd Abrams, attendees had the distinct pleasure of hearing a keynote address from Steven Pinker, Harvard University psychology professor and bestselling author.

Dr. Pinker identified free speech as essential to the mission of higher education, noting that many higher ed professionals seem to be confused about what exactly that mission is:

I have been astonished at how professors, deans, and university presidents cannot come up with a coherent statement of what the mission of a university is. When called upon to do so they go all misty, babbling in incoherent platitudes.

A good example is William Deresiewicz’s recent book Excellent Sheep, a bestseller whose excerpt in The New Republic quickly became the most-read article in the century-long history of that magazine. In this scathing critique of elite universities, Deresiewicz ventures that the goal of a university education is for students to “build a self,” which he explicates as follows: “It is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul.”

This vision, to the extent that one can make sense of it, is troubling. Though I’ve been a professor for more than three decades, I have no idea how to get students to acquire a self or build a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and we’ve never evaluated a candidate for hiring or promotion by how well he or she can accomplish it. Indeed, if “acquiring a self” has something to do with adult responsibility, moral sophistication, or the ability to reason through the inherent conflicts in human condition, contemporary universities are falling over themselves to prevent students from acquiring one. The students at elite universities today are encouraged to prioritize music, athletics, and other forms of recreation over their academic duties. They may be disciplined by an administrative board with medieval standards of jurisprudence, pressured to sign a kindness pledge suitable for kindergarten, muzzled by speech codes that would not pass the giggle test if challenged on First Amendment grounds, and publicly shamed for private emails that express controversial opinions.

For more of Dr. Pinker’s insights—including a discussion of how computer simulations have proven the value of good speech over censorship as the best remedy for bad speech—read the full transcript on our website or check out the video below.

Many thanks to Dr. Pinker and all who helped make the event, as well as FIRE’s 15 years of defending civil liberties, so special!

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