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Liberal "intellectualism" and Free Speech include dialogue and discussion as well as debate

When we invited Niko Malhotra ’24 to join us as a student representative on our steering committee, he readily agreed, sharing a piece he had written for the Record, insisting that “Williams commit to free speech”.

Like many of us, Niko was concerned about Geosciences Chair Phoebe Cohen’s “role in pressuring MIT to cancel” a talk by University of Chicago Professor Dorian Abbot because of his views on affirmative action:

As a member of the Williams community, I was deeply offended by Cohen’s assertion, for it goes against the very essence of the liberal arts education Williams attempts to achieve. Abbot’s views on affirmative action are so diametrically opposed to Cohen’s personal opinion that Abbot must be institutionally rejected by academia despite his expertise in climate sciences.

Indeed, MIT had invited Abbot to give its annual John Carlson lecture, which “communicates exciting new results in climate science to the general public.” He was not speaking on affirmative action. And still a Williams professor favored cancelling him, Cohen holding, “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated”.

In reading Niko’s piece, I was struck not just by Professor Cohen’s bizarre statement as I had been when first I read it, but also by two other things as well. First, the comment provides no rationale for cancelling a speaker. Second, she doesn’t quite specify who defined “intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism”. Is it just white men, but which white men and when?

When first I read it, I thought she was referencing Enlightenment ideals, but found no reference to those ideals when I read her Op-Ed addressing “the massive public blowback” to her comment in the New York Times. Indeed, in that piece, she only further muddies the waters:

Intellectual debate and the concept of “rigor” are often seen as the pinnacle -- that is, the most ideal form -- of intellectualism today in American higher education, a type of discourse that is prioritized and prized in a system that was created by and for white men. There are many other forms of intellectual discourse and knowledge building that don’t center on conflict. “Intellectual debate” is often cited as an ideal for finding truth, but in reality, it is a framework that gives equal weight to two ideas that often are not, in fact, equally worthy of platforming. Some things, such as the humanity of any group of people or the roundness of the Earth, are simply not up for debate.

Further, the idea that two people standing behind wooden podiums pummeling each other in front of a rapt audience is the only way to engage in discourse is exclusionary, outdated and ignores the many ways that knowledge is generated, reshaped and discussed.

Professor Cohen often uses the passive voice and does not specify who it is that sees debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism. Nor does she identify who said that debate between two people “pummeling” one another is “the only way to engage”.

While most of us who favor free speech, including speech by controversial individuals, believe debate and rigor to be important components of a liberal arts education, we also agree with Professor Cohen that many “forms of intellectual discourse… don’t center on conflict.”

Indeed, some of my fondest memories of Williams involve listening and discussing, listening to those from different backgrounds and holding different opinions, holding conversations about literature, language, history, even politics where the goal wasn’t to one-up one another, but to understand each other.

Listening, engaging, discussing, debating are all aspects of a liberal arts education. In my view, none could be defined as the pinnacle. They are all part of the whole.

Moreover, MIT didn’t invite Professor Abbot to debate. They invited him to give a lecture. And thus contending that intellectual debate and rigor should not be the pinnacle of a liberal arts education is not a justification for his cancellation.


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