opinionCommentary

In pursuit of truth in American universities

Our democracy needs a free exchange in the academy.

The rule of law means that the powerful do not get to define what the truth is. Instead, as the writers of the Declaration of Independence understood, facts must be submitted to a candid world. Both in democracy’s public square and in our universities, our polarized national conversation is undermining our capacity for reasoned deliberation and dispassionate stewardship of the Constitution.

The same day that Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment investigation, I published a book on whistleblowers. In my travels since, I have found that Americans are confused about the significance of the intelligence community whistleblower complaint. The media that feed readers what they want to hear makes it hard to separate facts from spin. But that is precisely the challenge before us.

What is at stake in the drama in Washington? The impeachment inquiry that was sparked by a whistleblower complaint may seem like a partisan attack. But the conduct of President Donald Trump is an American issue. Americans need to hear the evidence and decide whether it is acceptable for a president to behave in this way. The stakes are nothing less than the rule of law and the democratic system itself.

Arguments that the intelligence community whistleblower is no whistleblower, either because the arguments are partisan or submitted second-hand information, misunderstand that whistleblowing is an American tradition that dates to 1778, when the Continental Congress passed the world’s first whistleblower protection law. In our legal tradition, a whistleblower is an insider who has evidence of illegal or improper conduct and exposes it, either to the authorities or the press. In government, misconduct involves breaking the law or violating constitutional norms. Put another way, whistleblowers draw attention to actions that undermine public trust. Whistleblowers often reveal misconduct involving the use of public power for private gain.

To grapple with an issue of such importance to our nation, we as citizens must have minds attuned to distinguishing truth from fiction, despite the noise of conflicting stories and false narratives. Such open minds require that we listen empathetically to those with whom we disagree.

Yet in our universities, which are supposed to be devoted to truth-seeking, efforts to shut down or de-platform speakers have corrupted the free exchange of ideas and in some instances chilled classroom dynamics. Students need to be able to speak their minds, learn from their mistakes and encounter views that challenge them. College is the place where students should learn to respectfully disagree by focusing on facts and arguments, rather than passing judgement on those who do not share their political views. Closing your ears to someone who thinks differently is harming yourself, because you miss an opportunity to learn and test your beliefs. If we can’t get this right on our college campuses, we should not expect reasoned deliberation in the public sphere.

Former president Barack Obama earlier this month received bipartisan praise for condemning callout culture, especially on social media. It might seem like shaming others is the means to a better world, but the result can only be a downward spiral to nowhere worth going.

American ideals are a miraculous means of forging a shared sense of meaning and belonging for a diverse people. To be sure, there has always been a gap between American ideals and reality, but the idea that we are Americans not because of blood or soil but by virtue of shared ideals is a better way of thinking about identity and belonging.

Focusing on what divides us rather than what unites us as Americans is a road to further division, but it is also the case that failing to own our sins can also be divisive. The fact that great minds like Thomas Jefferson and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis had blind spots when it came to race needs to be owned if we are to confront contemporary inequality in America. For that, we need reason and free inquiry, not militant ideology. “The best way to right wrongs,” Ida B. Wells advised, “is to turn the light of truth on them.” Our universities should educate our students and the public on the dangerous consequences of dehumanizing fellow human beings.

Much is at stake in defending freedom of expression in our universities, because democracy cannot function when ideology trumps free thought. In 1974, Hannah Arendt explained, “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer … And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

University professors must model the behavior they want to see. We must strive to be better listeners who are open to learning ourselves. We must learn from the emotions we encounter, while affirming that liberal education ends when emotion is allowed to trump reason. Our celebration of the life of the mind, however, should not blind us to the work that still needs to be done in this country, as James Baldwin wrote, to “end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

With respect to our students, especially those who do not come from privileged backgrounds, we must equip them with the tools to fight injustice and unfairness. We must deliver an education that allows them to realize that reason and logic, so often used against them, can in reality be weapons of the weak against the powerful. The voices of the marginalized must be heard and amplified, while remembering, always, that extremism is ultimately the denial of empathy’s importance for human flourishing.

We are at a watershed moment for the American university and our democracy. Regardless of political affiliation, Americans need to think for themselves, consider the facts, and decide whether the conduct of the president is acceptable. Viewed in this way, the impeachment inquiry is an opportunity to put past acrimony behind us and refocus national attention on what unites us as Americans rather than divides us. That might currently seem impossible, but “the new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability,” Arendt reminds us. “The new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.”

Allison Stanger is Leng Professor of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College and the author of “Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump.”

Allison Stanger

We are currently revamping our comment system and it will return soon. In the meantime, you can provide feedback here.

If you have a comment specifically about the story you just read, we encourage you to submit a letter to the editor.

Get smart opinions

Get smart opinions

Editorial and commentary from op-ed columnists, the editorial board and contributing writers from The Dallas Morning News, delivered three days a week.

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy