In Praise of Intellectual Debate

There I was, in a classroom again, at Williams College. This was no flashback to 1979. It was September, 2018 and I was a student in a hot new course. Steven Gerrard, professor of philosophy, was in front of the room, facing a “class” of Executive Committee members and Alumni Fund vice chairs.

The course was Free Speech and Its Enemies, and we invited Gerrard to our meeting to recreate his class so that we could engage rigorously in a national controversy. The college found itself in the headlines during the early days of the campus free speech controversy, with the invitation/disinvitation of John Derbyshire to speak on campus in February 2016. The issue inspired Gerrard to transform that controversy into a course (see, with the goal of generating thoughtful, intellectually grounded discussions that could spill out informally into common rooms across the campus. 

Gerrard asked us to recall instances in our Williams lives when we felt directly the tension between the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech, and the Fourteenth, which protects civil rights. The generations of alums in the room (spanning 50 years) spoke of student strikes over the Cambodia bombings, candlelight vigils protesting South Africa investments, “Blue Jeans Day” to support gay rights, debates scribbled on the windows of Baxter Hall and chalked on campus sidewalks, and confrontations over Confederate flags adorning dorm walls.

I wish all alumni could … experience once more the thrill of a liberal arts education in action.

We engaged in some of these issues with passion but without rancor. Gerrard then guided our discussion on how decisions among competing values should be made. Do “civil rights” always override “free speech”? Or vice versa? Or are such choices more nuanced, dependent on the type of speech, the circumstances, settings, audiences, even relationships?

Gerrard forced us to think about the debate, examine the roots of the conflict, face the inherent complexities and ponder unintended consequences—not devoid of emotion but dispassionately enough to allow for proper discourse and dialogue. In so doing, he elevated us, if only for 75 minutes, out of the cesspool of online screaming and self-selecting cable channel panels to the highest form of dialogue, which, in our purple imagery, is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.

This is not new to Williams. I recall debates on similar topics in Vince Barnett’s Civil Liberties course (e.g., neo-Nazis marching in Skokie), and you surely remember many others across disciplines and decades. Williams does this work so very well and has for ages.

I wish all alumni could be transported into one of our classrooms and experience once more the thrill of a liberal arts education in action. I think you would feel heartened that the education of today’s bright young minds springs from an intellectual impetus, not a political one.

But, then again, you may feel otherwise. So let’s talk!

—Tom Gardner ’79, President, Society of Alumni
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