Free Societies

Are university students open to the ideas of liberty?

University students

Sabine El-Chidiac

Some believe that students are being pushed into anti-liberal ideas by their peers and professors in universities across North America, and most students are simply too far gone for classical liberal organizations to make any meaningful impact. There even seems to be a crisis on campus led by anti-liberal groups whose only goal is to shut down speech, so what’s the point of trying?

Throughout my time as the Educational Programs Manager at the Institute for Liberal Studies (ILS), I have come to see this issue from a completely different perspective. The ILS is an educational non-profit and Atlas Network partner organization in Canada that delivers programming primarily to university students, aimed at allowing them to discover the ideas of liberty. One of the ways we do this is to arrange talks on campus by speakers who talk about non-government solutions. These campus talks reach over 1,500 students of many different political and educational backgrounds each school year. The speakers we invite on campus are thoughtful, qualified scholars who really care about giving students an alternative way of thinking about topics like free speech, personal liberty, and free markets, among many other ideas of liberty. We also offer two five-day summer seminars called Freedom Week, where groups of around 40 students gather to learn about and discuss the ideas of liberty. Professors don’t just lecture students, but also take the time to speak with them and understand their thoughts and arguments about classical liberal ideas.

These programs have shown me that respectful debate and a willingness to learn concepts that may not fit into their worldview is something that is happening right now on Canadian campuses. I have many examples of how that is the case, but two, in particular, stand out. Last year, ILS Executive Director Matt Bufton, an Atlas Leadership Academy alum, was giving a talk on free speech at a university campus that many regard as left-leaning. Many students who might be described as “social justice warriors” attended the talk, which focused on ending the culture war and suggesting ways to deal with speech students might find offensive. After the talk, they asked Matt to stay behind and they proceeded to ask questions on several points that they disagreed with. The students didn’t shout Matt down, nor did they pull a fire alarm to stop him from speaking. Matt also did not resort to simply dismissing them as just “SJWs” who had no idea what they were talking about. They asked him hard questions, and he responded earnestly, trying to better understand their arguments and concerns while further explaining his own. After about 75 minutes of conversation, the students left, some convinced, others still skeptical, but all voicing their appreciation to Matt for taking their questions seriously and speaking with them honestly.

Just a few weeks ago, we invited University of Pennsylvania professor Sigal Ben-Porath to speak about the same topic in relation to her book ‘Free Speech on Campus’ (the talk is covered here by the campus newspaper). She spoke about the university’s responsibilities in relation to free speech on campus. As there was a large turnout, I wondered if someone in the audience might create a scene. Again, no one shouted the speaker out of the room, and no one pulled any fire alarms. What followed was another long Q and A with the speaker, where she took on some very difficult questions. Some students were passionate when asking their questions, but that is to be expected when hosting a talk open to all students, some of which have a deep concern about social justice on and off campus.

University students, as they have for every generation that has preceded this one, have charged and sometimes radical opinions. And, that’s okay. That’s what makes our society diverse and keeps it moving forward: an honest exchange of sometimes radical ideas. The two events mentioned above are not the only such incidents that I have been witness to. I’ve seen it countless times as I travel around the country putting these types of events on at campuses that are often deemed “conservative” or “leftist” strongholds. I also see it at Freedom Week, where students who identify as libertarian, left-liberal, conservative, and even card-carrying communists gather to hear from distinguished faculty about classical liberal ideas. Confronted with a reasonable, calm, and educated speaker, students debate them, sometimes passionately, but everyone leaves feeling like they gained from the conversation. Again, no fire alarms are ever pulled, even with the most controversial of topics.

How, then, should organizations in the Atlas Network put on talks that will educate and impact students? The ILS’s successful track record of putting on these types of talks to large audiences without incident, and running competitive Freedom Week seminars every summer, can offer a few suggestions. First, organizations should invite speakers who are thoughtful and insightful, and who are not stoking controversy just for controversy’s sake. There are fantastic alternatives out there, people who speak on classical liberal topics to university students but do so with the goal of educating people on their opinions rather than to have a fire alarm pulled or make the news. That’s how you get students to listen to new ideas they may not be exposed to in the classroom, and ask questions so they can truly appreciate the topic at hand.

Those looking to put on programs for university students should also invest in having honest, earnest, and open communication with students. That means leaving lots of time for questions and answers, and allowing students to express whatever opinion they might have, and being prepared to respond to these questions. If you are unsure of what they mean, encourage them to explain their point further. They might have an insight that you may not have considered before. It is an important classical liberal ideal to be able to bring two sides together and peacefully debate a topic, with both sides being able to leave having at the very least understood each other better. Respectful and non-patronizing communication, and an honest exchange of sometimes radical ideas is important and useful. It’s how we deal with it that matters.

The most important takeaway I can offer from my work at the Institute for Liberal Studies is to never shy away from putting on talks about difficult subjects for students of all political backgrounds. It is a rewarding exercise to spread the ideas of liberty to students across Canada, and introducing students to a perspective they might not have considered before should be the goal of all educational organizations. The students you hear about that shout down speakers and pull fire alarms are just the ones that make the news. Students like the ones I described above never make any headlines, but they are much more common than you think. Just present them with a reasonable, respectful speaker and see how they react. The ILS attracts many participants for Freedom Week, our Summer Fellowship Program, and our Socratic Seminars through students who show up to our talks, not knowing they would be so heavily impacted by our work on Canadian campuses.

Students are not the enemy of liberalism. Our programming should not be finding ways to win points in the public arena. Our goal should not be to inflame but to educate. The Institute for Liberal Studies has a strong track record of educating students of all political backgrounds, and our impact on their worldview is apparent by their willingness to come back to our events and apply for our programs. If your goal is to educate, then there are plenty of ways to successfully reach students on campus through honest communication and the creation of opportunities to learn from one another.