Open Inquiry

I have had the good fortune these past nine years to teach at a school like Ridgeview. It has been an environment that welcomes free enquiry, freedom of conscience, openness of discussion, and freedom of speech in a way that few educational institutions anywhere still do. I have taught students who, for the most part, believe that it is better to know than to remain ignorant, that a good exists and that attaining it is preferable to making do with its opposite, and that the world they stand to inherit, while flawed, is not hopeless. Ridgeview has been neither an intellectual monolith nor a violet shrunken at the first appearance of an alternative perspective. Teachers profess and students opine, but all are expected to do so respectfully and with a view to the edification of all involved.

If we are successful, a paradigm that emphasizes openness and respect for intellectual and academic engagement has been built that our students will refer to throughout their lives. Epistemological considerations prevent us from deciding what students will do with such a model, but it seems well evidenced that most of them leave Ridgeview possessed of wits and reason enough to apply them well. With this in mind, one would hope that they would not abandon the model so completely as to make demands like those being made by students at Northwestern University, who insist that they should be given a college education for free, that their student debt should be cancelled, and that everyone be granted a fifteen dollar per hour minimum wage. While not every student who has graduated from Ridgeview believes in the virtues of free market capitalism, it is likely that most believe in a free market of ideas since it is in such a market that superior ideas, if permitted sufficient examination and deliberation, will push out inferior ones. Free enquiry will test presuppositions, challenge traditions, and question authorities; and there is greater toleration in this model than in the restricted enquiry that currently dominates at colleges and universities.

If one embraces a model of open enquiry, one does not see the travesty of political correctness as foolish so much as dangerous. Any forum that restricts speech by forcing the speaker to check what they think against an approved list of ideologically acceptable utterances of the collective is intolerant and mostly likely places a hush upon the genuine minority view. While it silences the opposition, it crowns itself not merely right or probable, but true. Lampooning such foolery will not stop it. A worldview that assumes the rightness of speech codes and does not laugh down the absurdity of free-speech zones as constitutional embarrassments or that entertains the legitimacy of microaggressions and trigger words in an academic setting is not one in which the model that we have attempted to bequeath to our students can survive.

As was explored in George Orwell’s 1984, there are no laws more despotic than those that preempt speech by outlawing the thoughts that could give rise to it. As the protagonist Winston contemplates whether to begin recording his thoughts in a diary, the narrator explains that, “This was not illegal (nothing was illegal since there were no longer any laws), but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labor camp.” It is fair to note that political correctness is not enforced through capital punishments, but it is also fair to note that regimes that take seriously speech codes do not market their initial appeal with wholesale slaughter and incarceration. The notion that thought should be controlled is sufficient, and it is the backbone of a totalitarianism in which, as T.H. White put it, “Everything not forbidden is compulsory.” One is free to think any thought that is not prohibited, and those not prohibited must be thought. This totalitarianism is audacious in its scope, given that Madison did not think one could eliminate faction by forcing everyone to have the same thoughts, feelings, and passions, but alas, this seems to be a part of the plan. As a candidate vying for the executive office recently said, “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.” In a culture where ignorance is not only acceptable but fashionable, and, in particular, where ignorance of one’s civic obligations, history, traditions, and civic institutions are widespread enough, anything that can be introduced gradually enough will be tolerated and even made enforceable through the legal system.

It is not, however, a foregone conclusion that our society is so arranged. Our own children, and the many good families that have chosen Ridgeview, should lend us some hope. We are not quite the island we sometimes dread we are. The petulance of one group of students has been met with the less juvenile resolution of another, namely, those who wrote the following for the Claremont Independent: “We are disappointed that you’ve used phrases like “silence is violence” to not only demonize those who oppose you, but all who are not actively supporting you. We are most disappointed, however, in the rhetoric surrounding “safe spaces.” College is the last place that should be a safe space. We come here to learn about views that differ from our own, and if we aren’t made to feel uncomfortable by these ideas, then perhaps we aren’t venturing far enough outside of our comfort zone. We would be doing ourselves a disservice to ignore viewpoints solely on the grounds that they may make us uncomfortable, and we would not be preparing ourselves to cope well with adversity in the future. Dealing with ideas that make us uncomfortable is an important part of growing as students and as people, and your ideas will inhibit opportunities for that growth.” There is, then, hope for open enquiry even while some students have entered college with little plan other than defining their intellectual consistency by using their rights to assemble and speak to prevent others from assembling or speaking.

Allan Bloom, writing on self-centeredness in The Closing of the American Mind, wrote that, “Students these days are, in general, nice. I choose the word carefully. They are not particularly moral or noble. Such niceness is a facet of democratic character when times are good. Neither war nor tyranny nor want has hardened them or made demands on them. The wounds and rivalries caused by class distinction have disappeared along with any strong sense of class…Students are free of most constraints, and their families make sacrifices for them without asking for much in the way of obedience or respect. Religion and national origin have almost no noticeable effect on their social life or their career prospects.” These “nice” children have gone from not wishing to offend anyone’s sensibilities to not wanting to have their sensibilities offended. They have chosen their prejudices and normative preconceptions, thought fit to lock them in, and feel entitled not to have them challenged. For the most part, no one has challenged them because students attend colleges and universities that long ago ceded any adult guidance, whose values are as childish as those they propose to teach. These professors’ professing has much in common with Theodore Roosevelt’s advice on parenting: “Ask them what they want to do and tell them to do it.” What challenged them is what Roger Kimball has called “the mendacious gospel of political correctness, according to which reality must take second place to ideology.” These students have transcended the denial of reality and are now discomfited because their hopes of transcending the consequences of denying reality are being challenged. Such a strategy will not work in the long run, but those seeking the elongation of adolescence do not think much about the long run. There is no adult intervention in a culture of feelings because such culture is emphatically about how one feels now. To quote from Kimball again, it is that the “pleasures of aggression were henceforth added to the comforts of feeling aggrieved.”

While we have heard much about no previous generation having behaved in such a way, a casual review of history refutes this. In 1969, the then Governor Ronald Reagan dealt with a series of riots in Berkeley. When Reagan challenged the administrators of the school for not having better dealt with the situation, they replied that they had tried negotiating. A furious Reagan responded with: “Negotiate? What is there to negotiate? All of it began the first time that some of you who know better and are old enough to know better, let young people think that they had the right to choose the laws that they would obey as long as they were doing it in the name of social protest.” In 1969, the students destroyed property, and one student died in the rioting. In 2015, students are busy dismantling the Constitution and its protections of free speech. For them, it is a suicide pact, and they intend for it to be its own undoing. While we take heart in our community at Ridgeview, we must be certain that we are instilling the types of convictions that will form a bulwark against niceness in place of thoughtfulness, against feigned acceptance in favor of rational toleration, and against restricted enquiry in favor of open enquiry. Some of our students are less than a year removed from joining the fracas, and our alumni are amidst it already. Both Ridgeview as a school and Ridgeview as a community of families must do all it can to ensure that the method of education we have modeled here will become the architecture for the free society we wish for our children to inherit.

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