Andrew Fiala

Want a stronger citizenry? Make college cheap – or free

Students cross in front of the Madden Library at Fresno State on the first day of classes in August 2017.
Students cross in front of the Madden Library at Fresno State on the first day of classes in August 2017. Fresno Bee file

Censorship is the enemy of free thought. But intellectual development also depends upon social conditions that provide us with the time and the opportunity to think.

Andrew Fiala

Last week President Trump signed an executive order aiming to make universities “more affordable.” When he signed the order, he said that the high cost of college is ripping people off. In addition to focusing on student costs, the order “seeks to promote free and open debate on college and university campuses.” Affordability and free speech may not seem to be connected. But money matters when it comes to the possibility of utilizing our freedom.

In order to exercise a right, you need access and opportunity. In some parts of the country, it is impossible for a woman to get an abortion despite the fact that she has a legal right to an abortion. The right to bear arms can only be exercised if one has enough money to buy a gun. Money also matters when it comes to hiring an effective lawyer and getting a fair trial.

Our ability to exercise our First Amendment rights likewise depends upon social and economic conditions. A rich person can take out a full-page newspaper ad, travel to the state capital, or influence political campaigns with large donations. Poor people are free to speak and act politically. But the wealthy have bigger megaphones, which make them more effective in petitioning the government.

Young people can take to the streets. But marching down main street creates risks that rich people do not face when they write checks from the comfort of their homes. Poor and vulnerable people have an interest in keeping a low profile. And students struggling to support themselves may not have the time or the energy to exercise their First Amendment rights.

So that’s why we ought to applaud the combination of ideas that links free speech with student debt. If we could make college cheap – or even free – then more young people would be able to afford to get involved in the political process. They would also have more time to study and learn. Cheaper college would create smarter and better citizens.

This may not be exactly what the president had in mind. In his signing statement, the president said that American students and American values are “under siege” on college campuses. He said that universities “have become increasingly hostile to free speech and to the First Amendment.” He said that “professors and power structures” are trying to “suppress dissent” by preventing students from challenging “rigid, far-left ideology.”

Don’t judge the many by the few

A few leftist professors may be plotting a revolution. But most professors are focused on teaching and research. Professors also understand the dark history of censorship. Socrates was killed for speaking his mind. Galileo was attacked by the Inquisition. Darwin was put on trial in the Scopes case. Unpopular ideas have routinely been censored by political and religious authorities.

This history explains the academic commitment to intellectual freedom. And the First Amendment is the law of the land. Universities welcome evangelical preachers, anti-abortion protestors, as well as others who don’t fit the script of a leftist conspiracy to stifle free speech.

Professors do tend to be politically liberal. But our primary commitment is to liberal education – which means an education grounded in freedom of thought. This means that we value the autonomy of the young people we teach. We want our students find their own voices, even when we disagree with what they say.

At any rate, students are often less worried about censorship than about making ends meet. They are often too busy working to attend political events or argue in the quad. Hard-working students are focused and disciplined. But thinking also requires leisure time in which the mind wanders and grows.

So let’s reaffirm our commitment to the First Amendment. Diversity of opinion is essential for the process of enlightenment. Ideas and arguments on all sides need to be considered. But let’s also think about the cost of college. Students need free time and economic independence to fully benefit from intellectual freedom. The freedom to think depends upon what’s in one’s wallet as much as it does upon the speech code hanging on the classroom wall.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala