Marketplace of Ideas?

      There’s a lot of debate nowadays about what exactly the purpose of a University is. You might think it is fairly straightforward, but upon further inspection it is not so certain. Many people will tell you to go to school to get a job. I assume that’s at least true in some respect to most of us. The current cost of college makes going for any other reason seem foolish. Still, many students study fields that lack a clear career path, such as philosophy or theology. Some students will make a career out of being a student intent on obtaining a PHD to teach in their field and do research. For others there is the social experience. Especially at a Christian college, the prospect of meeting a potential future spouse is a very real goal for some people.

      All of these are legitimate reasons to go to college, but what I am curious about is this conflict we hear in the media over supposed “safe spaces.” There is a debate on whether the University should be a purely intellectual space, or whether it should be tailored toward a sense of social justice. Personally I sit not on the fence, but on the sidelines wondering how I might reconcile those ideas. The foundation of western democracy is ideally that ideas should stand on their own merit, and that reason, rather than testimony should serve to measure that merit. Now, academically we know there are limits to this approach, but the idea lingers in the university space. Some would argue that the perceived harm or implication of an idea should not be considered, but rather its validity and consistency. In contrast, others (myself included) would argue that you can’t separate ideas from their source, and maybe more importantly, their consequences.

      We want the university to be a marketplace of ideas. We want everyone to have a platform to speak. There is cause for concern, however, as to how far that should go. In the current political climate, where ideas like nationalism are not taboo, we should provide a platform even if the potential harm is great. I struggle even with my own political leanings being construed with those of cold-war era dictators and their associated crimes. While I and many of my peers are sympathetic to leftist ideas, it is impossible to avoid the implications of history. Beyond that, how do I have a reasonable discussion with someone who thinks that my friends who have a different skin color or sexuality are beneath them? How far are we willing to extend the idea of an “intellectual space” if it means accepting ideas such as open racism or authoritarian politics? Don’t people have a right to be protected from that?

      I don’t know that I know the answer to these questions, but I do believe that the values that make a person value everyone’s right to be heard should be the same values that make a person value everyone’s right to exist. I don’t believe that the tolerant have an obligation to tolerate the intolerant, but I’m left asking myself, “are there things I believe that cause people harm?”

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