If You're A College Student Planning To Silence A Speaker, Read This First

Why do you see “danger” in the clash of ideas, instead of opportunity?

An open letter to students at Middlebury College (and every university where guest lecturers have been prevented from speaking):

There’s little doubt that we are living in loud times. Many of us have an understandable wish to turn it down. Stop the sound, we think, and maybe, somehow, we can find sanity in the ensuing silence.

Still, it’s hard to describe my astonishment and that of many others of a liberal bent in hearing about the events surrounding the Charles Murray lecture at Middlebury College in early March—not to mention in reading the resulting editorials in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others.

Then there was the March 1st letter to Middlebury’s student newspaper, The Campus: “Charles Murray at Middlebury: Unacceptable and Unethical, Say Over 450 Alumni.” Among the comments made by the letter’s young signers (I couldn’t find any that had graduated prior to 2000) is this one: “We, the undersigned, want to make clear...that the decision to bring Dr. Murray to campus is unacceptable and unethical. It is a decision that directly endangers members of the community and stains Middlebury’s reputation…”

The letter says the following about Murray’s work, such as it is: “This is the same thinking that motivates eugenics and the genocidal white supremacist ideologies which are enjoying a popular resurgence under the new presidential administration. It is the same thinking that pervades many of the policies, structures and attitudes that perpetuate the ever-worsening inequalities of American society today.”

Unless I’m misunderstanding, it looks as if, in the very same letter that questions the lecturer’s presence, you make an excellent case for why, in fact, his visit is relevant and vital given current events. But a broader question for many of us of a certain age is this one: Why do you see “danger” in the clash of ideas, instead of opportunity?

You’re informed. You’re sharp. Why not bring a bright light to bear on Murray and others like him? Why not welcome them into the midday glare that only a college campus full of educated and iconoclastic people can create? If you disagree with him, as I happen to, defend your turf. Do it so well and so strongly that the world will listen and remember your views.

You may feel that you can bury abhorrent ideas by depriving them of “platform.” But, as you will probably learn, down in the darkness and silence bad ideas have a funny way of taking root. Those who espouse them don’t disappear. Life doesn’t work like that. And, as you may have realized in recent days, by trying to squelch thoughts you despise you award them far more currency than an evening’s exchange.

You’ll meet many fools and evil actors in your life ahead. And, whether in politics or science or the arts, many will hold an alarming degree of power. Listen to what they have to say. Laugh a little. Analyze. Marshal your arguments. Then strike. Make your rebuttal so rigorous, so ringing, so well-sourced, that you cannot help but win the day.

The Middlebury course catalog from way back in my time — the late 1970s — devoted its very first page, a full page, to a poem of Robert Frost’s. I still have it here on my shelf. “Something we were withholding made us weak,” wrote Frost in The Gift Outright. “Until we found out that it was ourselves.”

All I’m asking is, in a way, what Frost asked: to not withhold yourselves. To give the college community and the world around it your gift of full-on engagement. Your gift of listening. Your gift of scrutiny. Your gift of debate.

Peter Mandel, who graduated from Middlebury in 1979, is the author of the read-aloud bestseller Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook) and other books for kids, including Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House) and Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).