George La Noue trekked up from Baltimore to talk with me about his new book, Silenced Stages: The Loss of Academic Freedom and Campus Policy Debates. It’s an excellent little volume, well-written and packed with data, and I commend it to all who care about academic freedom and the formation of civic virtue. (Watch the next issue of Academic Questions for my review of it.)
George and a team of research assistants combed through every public event in 2014 and 2015 at 97 colleges and 28 law schools, and calculated how frequently campuses hosted policy debates. The short answer is “not often.” Colleges invite speakers to lecture on topics--but they rarely expose their students to civil debates on important public policy questions.
George is Professor Emeritus and Research Professor in Public Policy and Political Science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and he brings to the conversation his 50-year career in teaching college students about the First Amendment, educational policy, and civil rights--topics rife with controversies.
George and I take a deep dive into his book, and talk about what happens when students never hear academic debates.
0:00: Peter introduces George La Noue
2:50: Politics, church, and state: Peter and George discuss George’s dissertation, which examined the Peace Corps as a secular alternative to religious missions.
5:50: George describes his career teaching First Amendment law and how he asked students to debate controversial topics in class. But increasingly colleges seek to avoid controversy, and students have no tolerance for engaging the other side of an argument.
11:53: Controversial topics can be discussed in the classroom, as long as students study both sides of the issue and avoid ad hominem attacks.
14:15: Many students think maligning a person’s character is tantamount to defeating his ideas. How did the education system entrench identity politics?
24:03: Should conservatives protest leftist speakers more often?
26:18: George’s new book Silenced Stages documents the lack of academic debates and how this affects academic freedom.
28:52 What topics do get debated on college campuses?
34:05: A shouting match between the audience and the speaker isn’t a good model of civil debate. George says good debates should involve well-prepared people who respect each other, discuss costs and benefits, and speak honestly about how a policy could be implemented.
35:19: Peter asks George where he would send a college president to learn about hosting good debates. Is there any place that currently serves as a model?
47:24: What public policy issue most deserves a debate on college campuses? George says climate change, but colleges and universities often shut down discussion on this issue.
55:46: Colleges need to publish comprehensive calendars of their events, so the public can tell whether they host important debates. South Dakota’s new intellectual diversity law is a major step in the right direction.
59:05: George names a couple of colleges that do host policy discussions--but some shy away from the word “debate.” Why?
1:05:00: Institutional neutrality is crucial. George says it’s hard to have real academic freedom when the university itself is committed to a policy position.
1:06:07: George joined the National Association of Scholars twenty years ago because “it creates the possibility of having an alternative point of view to the higher education establishment.” Others should join “because it’ll make higher education better.”
George R. La Noue, Silenced Stages: The Loss of Academic Freedom and Campus Policy Debates, Carolina Academic Press
George R. La Noue, “Promoting a Campus Culture of Policy Debates,” Academic Questions, Winter 2017