Larry Arnn Emphasizes the Importance of Free Speech on College Campuses

Larry Arnn

Larry Arnn said college campuses in September and October are as “happy as Disneyland,” but by late March and April, they’re “madder than Hell.” Given those seasonal extremes, Arnn said there is no better time than summer to discuss the purpose of free speech, and the threat it’s under, both on and off college campuses.

Arnn, the 12th president of Hillsdale College and professor of politics and history, spoke at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater, continuing Week Five, “The Life of the Spoken Word.”

“If you were to ask a college president what they think of freedom of speech on, let’s say, April 10, the answer is ‘tell them to shut up,’ ” he said. “Now, the nearest thing to quiet at a college comes in the month of July, so I feel better about it all right now.”

Speech, derived from the Greek word logos, is a fundamental word, as Arnn explained by paraphrasing Aristotle’s Politics.

“Speech, logos, served to reveal the advantageous and the harmful, and hints also at the just and the unjust,” he said. “For it is peculiar to man, compared to other animals, that he alone has a perception of good and bad, of just and unjust and the other things of this sort. Community in these things is what makes a household and a city.”

Aristotle’s claim is that human beings are defined by their ability to talk. Arnn cited an example from his own family, where they have raised children and boxer dogs. For the first two years of the children and the dogs’ lives, Arnn said the two are very alike.

“They don’t know much, they live on the floor, they eat each others’ food and, interestingly enough, they hear all the same things,” he said.

At about age 2, the children start talking, but the dogs never do. After about six months of talking, Arnn said children seem to “know everything.”

“How did they learn those things?” he said. “It’s a kind of magic that happens in the soul. No dog has ever started talking and no child has ever been taught to talk because there isn’t anywhere to start. They have to understand something just to get started.”

How do humans learn speech all on their own? Aristotle said that it’s an ability to use a certain kind of word that only humans can. Arnn used two examples: a tissue box and a “speaker box” — the dais he was standing on. Children are not able to use a reference, like a vocabulary card, to learn “box” because the two boxes look very different.

“We use common nouns, and all speech is made possible by that,” Arnn said.

If Arnn were to rip the tissue box to pieces, he said the box would “lose its goodness.”

“Aristotle says at the same time and in the same motion, it loses the being of the box,” he said. “That means that our understanding of ‘kinds of things’ is written in this perception of the essence, or good, or being of each thing before us, and that’s how we think of things being just or unjust because each individual is different.”

Once one understands there is a unique meaning and being to things such as man and dog, that lays the groundwork for knowing no two things can be treated the same. Arnn said Thomas Jefferson proposed this concept in the Declaration of Independence, when he wrote, “The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

The same point has been made at various times in history. In a Lincoln-Douglas debate, Stephen Douglas asked why the federal government did not protect his slave the way it protects the rest of his property, to which Abraham Lincoln replied that Douglas did in fact know the difference between a human being and inanimate objects.

“If you read a lot of Aristotle, it will teach you to think like that, because he claims that the good is undeniable, even if it is ignored or willfully denied,” Arnn said.

Ultimately, Arnn said humans are identified by their ability to speak, thus restricting that ability would be the same as telling “dolphins they can’t swim.”

College is derived from the Latin word collegium, meaning partnership.

“It means it’s something to do together and remember, the ground has been laid for us to do things together most radically in speech because what speech means is whatever we can think, we can say,” Arnn said. “When we are talking, we are just thinking out loud, and when we are thinking, we are just talking to ourselves.”

In the minds of classic thinkers, Arnn said the political community is the highest and closest form of community — except for the community of friendship, which is formed around “the contemplation of the ultimate things.”

According to Arnn, that is what a majority of colleges in America were founded on, as seen in the mission statements of schools like Hillsdale.

“(At Hillsdale) we love freedom, we love independence, we love equality and we love learning,” he said. “A community of learning needs to be close.”

Because of the commitment to partnership in learning, Arnn said there are rules in place at  Hillsdale to uphold those standards.

For example, discussions at Hillsdale require continuity. When professors ask students what a certain thing is, they are not allowed to answer with phrases like “To me it means …”

“If you try to set up, what does it actually mean, what does it in fact mean, it’s harder now,” Arnn said. “One of Socrates’ favorite questions is, ‘What is it for a thing to be good?,’ and that’s not simple, it’s just sublime. To seek it, there is no higher activity, no more joyous activity and it’s to be done together.’ ”

Aristotle has a list of intellectual virtues, and the highest virtue of knowledge is contemplation, the immediate beholding of “ultimate beautiful things.” According to Arnn, that is what a college curriculum is all about.

“Aristotle said some kinds of things are good for their own sake, and then there are some that produce a product,” he said.

Arnn ran through a list of things: bottle-making, bottle, drinking, health.

“When you get to health, you get to something everybody needs and then if you put victory, health, and intelligence and sufficient together in a list, then you realize that you can have all of those things, that they are good for their own sake and that means that they stand at a higher dignity than the lower things that produce them,” he said.

On the other hand, one could have all of those things and still be “miserable.”

“The point is, what would you add to those things that would make you completely what you are, and therefore possible to be happy?” Arnn said. “That’s the subject of Aristotle’s ethics, and that’s also the subject of college — it’s to find out the things that are beautiful to know for their own sake.”

Once people behold “high and beautiful things,” they are able to draw conclusions about those things, what Aristotle considers wisdom.

“Wisdom takes time, which means when you’re young it’s hard to be wise,” Arnn said.

But in college, freshmen are thrown into a population of professors and students wiser than they are. Arnn personally interviews every professor before they get hired at Hillsdale and said they are all used to being the smartest person they know, so Arnn said they are making a “crazy choice.”

“They are going into a line of work where they’ll never get rich and they’ve got a mountain to climb,” he said. “It will take them their whole lives and they won’t get to the top, and they want that.”

Professors lead the academic community with knowledge, experience and ability that students are unable to possess that early in their lives, the main reason “colleges need to go on for a long time.”

College also produces a pathway to God. Aristotle described the idea of God as a perfect being that can “see everything at once.” Moving from one thing to the next would imply imperfection. Thinking about one thing and then another would imply dissent. Therefore, the only thing God really thinks about is himself.

Arnn said that concept applies to everyday life in the way people deal with trials in their personal lives. For example, Arnn said by spending time at Chautauqua Institution, people are putting their focus on themselves, giving them an opportunity to work through their struggles.

“That is longing for God,” he said. “College is reaching God as he can be known, both in reason and in faith.”

College also produces friendship, what Arnn considers “utility, pleasure and the contemplation of the highest things together.” The only speech rule at Hillsdale is one can say anything they want to if they can say it in a “civil and academic manner.”

“(That rule is) because we are here to be friends and to figure things out together,” he said.

Arnn said what he sees on college campuses now is a “staggering and dangerous thing,” far from the original intentions of speech and college.

Speech can be lethal, even if no harm is intended, and even if someone outside of one’s community cannot perceive the harm in it. According to the current claim at Williams College in Massachusetts, one can be “ignorant of harm if they’re guilty of whiteness,” Arnn said.

“They have repudiated everything that has gone on, but the students claiming these things can’t possibly know much about that because it takes a while to learn,” he said.

Arnn said this ignorance is apparent even at Hillsdale, where even though students believe being conservative means they’ll be accepted into the school, they are always unable to tell Arnn what it means to really be a conservative. To those students, Arnn said, “cut it out.”

“You’re supposed to get an education now,” he said. “You’re going to read these books, you’re going to listen, you’re going to formulate your own arguments, you’re going to try to argue and you’re going to step right outside these opinions that you have because philosophy, according to the classics, is the refining of opinion into truth. That’s the work of a college.”

Arnn finished with a quote from Darel Paul, professor of political science at Williams College. The quote is from Paul’s essay in Areo Magazine, “Listening to the Great Awokening.” 

“In ages past, administrators and academics believed the mission of higher education to be the pursuit of knowledge (University of Chicago: ‘Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched’; University of Cambridge: ‘Hinc lucem et pocula sacra’) or even truth (Harvard University: ‘Veritas’; Yale University: ‘Lux et Veritas’),” Paul wrote. “Today, they pursue Social Justice. Under that banner, anti-racist activists hope to do to higher education what Soviet communism did to fine art, literature and music.”

Paul went on to discuss Trofim Lysenko, a Russian critic of genetics and science-based agriculture. Lysenko tested two generations of crops around his theories and both failed, but at the time, criticizing him was illegal and led to the death penalty. As a result of his agricultural failures and the state’s death penalty, Arnn said around 20 million people died.

“Without a comparison of views around people willing and able, two qualifications to do any difficult thing, willing and able, and without that friendship, the crops are going to fail and no one is going to know what’s good,” Arnn said.

Arnn bets Paul is a “modern academic liberal.” Although Arnn said that is a much better thing to be than someone like Lysenko, he still disagrees with a vast majority of Paul’s claims.

“If you read through that article, you can see there is a rejection of human reason in these claims that are being shouted on college campuses today,” Arnn said. “If you think about it for a minute, that is utter and complete foolishness. If you say reasoning matters not at all, that is a rational assertion — reason being all we’ve got. Somehow, they’ve done something worse than lose their mission, they have moved in final opposition to that mission and that’s why I think civilization is at stake.”

As for what to do going forward, Arnn said the solution is simple.

“You should learn to talk in an academic and civil way with others, whatever they think,” he said.
Tags : “The Life of the Spoken Word”Larry Arnnlecturemorning lecturemorning lecture recapWeek Five

The author Jamie Landers

Jamie Landers is entering her third season as a reporter for The Chautauquan Daily, covering all things music-related within the online platform. Previously, she recapped the Chautauqua Lecture Series in 2019 and the Interfaith Lecture Series in 2018. In addition, she is a rising senior at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix, Arizona, where she most recently served as a breaking news reporter for The Arizona Republic, as well as a documentary producer for Arizona PBS.