A Requiem For Quality Academic Thought

Ed. Note: David Meyer-Lindenberg started out to write about free speech, but midway through, realized that this post by Judith Shapiro, president and professor of anthropology emerita at Barnard College, published at Inside Higher Education was, well, unadulterated gibberish that said nothing. David shifted gears.

As those of you who’ve read my previous work know, I don’t write very well. Heck, I barely speak English. But I didn’t realize just how far I was lagging behind until I read this op-ed by Judith Shapiro, a former president of Barnard College, at Inside Higher Ed.

The topic? The purported need for less “free” and more “quality” speech. I think. It’s honestly kinda hard to tell.

In an era of information overload, we face the problem that too much information is equivalent to too little. But we also face a more serious problem: a Gresham’s law of information in which bad information is driving out good information.

Deepak Chopra, is that you? Is this like one of those Zen koans, where something’s only seemingly nonsensical but in fact turns out to be very wise?

Gresham’s law also holds for speech and is thus relevant to the many speech-related upheavals occurring on college and university campuses that we’ve read about repeatedly (and, by now, ad nauseam).

Cite? Are American college professors not as big on citations as their European peers? If so, I could’ve saved myself many a bruised knuckle by going to Barnard. Oh wait.

What makes the situation particularly challenging is that a worthy and important concern for free speech can overshadow the concern for quality speech. But, given the business that institutions of higher education are in — that of teaching and learning, scholarship and science — it would seem entirely fitting and proper for them to have certain standards of speech.

Not only is this a total non sequitur, but the first premise is, shall we say, a dubious reflection of reality. If college professors had recently been in the news for their excessive concern for free speech, as opposed to their fondness for bike locks, FIRE donors would feel a lot less “nauseated.”

The most ultramontane free speech advocates adopt a kind of domino theory according to which recognizing such distinctions can never be principled or even possible. To use a mélange of comparable metaphors, it is the thin edge of the camel’s nose sliding down the slippery slope under the tent. How can you possibly turn Richard Spencer down while accepting Charles Murray?

Gratuitous swipe at Murray aside – is there another scholar in America who’s so loathed by the people who’ve never read him? – what Shapiro appears to be saying, somewhere under the verbiage, is that free-speech advocates reject her call for policing speech on “quality” grounds because of slippery-slope arguments.

What are we do to with this claim? It’d be helpful if we knew what she meant by “free speech,” but Shapiro’s an anthropologist, not a lawyer, and precise use of language just isn’t her thing.

27 thoughts on “A Requiem For Quality Academic Thought

  1. B. McLeod

    It isn’t surprising that her writing conveys little, given that she seems to think universities have to do with “teaching and learning, scholarship and science.”

  2. Richard Kopf

    David,

    “As those of you who’ve read my previous work know, I don’t write very well. Heck, I barely speak English.” Dave, please give me a fucking break. Deutsche sollten nicht lügen.

    Hands down, you are the best writer and thinker (save for him whose name must not be mentioned because he is mean and nasty and likes bacon far too much) ever to grace the pages of Simple Justice. All the best.

    RGK

    * As for the insipid article, I especially grinned when the professor emerita concluded that college administrators should get “help from the humanists and communications specialists on their faculty” to set “standards of speech.” Clearly, they don’t need no damn First Amendment. It allows the icky to speak.

    1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

      As usual, Judge, you’re far too kind to me. I’m the least of a great bunch – but that’s no bad thing!

      I’m glad you liked the part about the communications specialists. Did you think of the same person I did?

      Don’t hate. She’s a trained professional.

      1. Richard Kopf

        David,

        No, I confess I did not. But, of course, I should have thought of the person to whom you refer. That is because she is the perfect example.

        All the best.

        RGK

        1. Scott Jacobs

          Your honor, what have we told you about saying nice things to David?

          He’ll start thinking he’s people.

  3. Robert

    Professor Shapiro’s piece implies that only a certain segment of the population should be able to determine whether or what speech is of sufficient “quality” to be spoken to and received by hoi polloi. From the third paragraph cited, I gather that Professor Shapiro distinguishes between what she sees as mere “speech”, which is suppressible; “quality speech”, which is not; and that enlightened/woke university administrators should establish “standards” to filter out the one from the other.

    For Professor Shapiro and those who believe as she does, it is simply an inconvenience that the Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment prohibits governmental administrators from inquiring into the “quality” of speech, as she urges they do. It is an inconvenience that the Supreme Court has set forth objective and clearly-defined elements to sort insuppressible speech from regulable incitement or criminal threats. It is an inconvenience that such clearly-delineated objective exceptions–and not the subjective reactions of the “unduly passionate” (to borrow SHG’s phrase)–determine whether the speech at issue is regulable or not.*

    The upshot of Professor Shapiro’s piece is that only she and others like her are enlightened enough to be the sole arbiters regarding what can and can’t be said in the realm of public discourse (I doubt they would limit the light of their wokeness only to campus discourse). To give her a scintilla of credit for having a modicum of self-awareness, she does not say as much outright. But her penultimate paragraph to me is a dead giveaway.

    *I hope this same crowd does not discover Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified School District, 767 F.3d 764 (9th Cir. 2014). It would be insufferable to see that heckler’s veto case bandied about without regard for the Tinker standard or the high school context in which it was set (to the extent the Ninth Circuit got it right even in that context).

    1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

      Yeah, you know, that’s kinda what I thought at first. I was happy to launch into a discussion of content-based restrictions and how slippery slopes are useful to free-speech policy arguments, not legal ones. (Even then, her abortion example suggests she doesn’t get that lawyers use hypos, slippery slope or otherwise, to vet thinking for consistency.)

      But seriously, you’re just projecting that interpretation onto a completely insipid text. There’s nothing left after the grafs I cited. Not even a conclusion. It’s just wholly irresolute blather.

      1. Robert

        I hear you loud and clear.

        Though I am likely either overthinking or projecting, I suspect the reason the piece devolves into (or doesn’t rise beyond) “wholly irresolute blather” is that Shapiro doesn’t yet dare to come out and clearly say what she wants to say: “Only administrators like myself should have the final word as to what subjects can and can’t be broached.” Instead, she creates plausible deniability (“I would never dare to be so arrogant as to suggest such a thing!”) by hiding behind opaque platitudes and tropes that only hint at the conclusion.

        Again, I recognize I am likely overthinking or projecting here in light of the other pieces and tweets I read. It is just that I am highly suspicious of and dismayed by the line of thinking I see developing out there, i.e., campus speech should be regulated based on its content or viewpoint rather than simply time, place, and manner.

        1. SHG

          Robert, I’ve noticed that the value of comments tends to run in direct inverse proportion to their length. Your comments are too fucking long, tediously boring and not even remotely worth the murder of so many words. It would be appreciated if you could either write far shorter comments or make them a little bit more interesting.

  4. Matthew S Wideman

    This is fascism with a hint of maternalism and thin veneer of civility. Once again, another academic doesn’t see the inherent abuse that will come with determining the quality of speech.

  5. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Hi David,

    I disagree with your diagnosis. This is a very clever article and I suspect that the meaning is crystal clear to her audience. The purpose of the word salad is to make critical thinkers throw up their hands and say “How can I respond; she’s not saying anything!” In order to achieve their goals, those who wish to censor must undermine and discredit critical thinking while preventing critical thinkers from pointing out the flaws in their logic. If there appears to be no logic, how can we argue against it with logic? It’s like trying to attack a cloud with a knife.

      1. Pedantic Grammar Police

        Exactly. What do you think the universities are teaching and promoting? “Good” students don’t waste their time thinking for themselves; they take in the prepackaged thoughts of their woke professors and mindlessly regurgitate them. 1984 wasn’t a warning; it was an instruction manual for these people.

  6. Nigel Declan

    If President Shapiro can’t meaningfully distinguish between Richard Spencer and Charles Murray, and truly believes students are similarly incapable of distinguishing a Neo-Naxo from an academic, as her piece seems to suggest, one has to wonder how she managed to become the president of anything more substantial than the enthralled-with-hearing-her-own-voice fan club.

      1. Nigel Declan

        Even she admits that higher education institutions, including Barnard presumably, should have standards. That she would not meet them if they existed is merely sweet, sweet irony.

  7. CLS

    Dave:

    You still continue to give me hope for your generation with such incredible, well written thought like this.

    That said, I’m spoiling for a fight. Bad.

    Normally this is behind the scenes, but after reviewing our past bouts, I’m officially calling you out for the next SJ Debate.

    You pick the topic. You pick the side. Let’s see who mops the floor with who.

    In the spirit of H.L. Mencken, I’ve just spit on my hands and hoisted the black flag.

    You ready to play The Game?

    1. David Meyer Lindenberg Post author

      That quote’s about normal men, Chris. Normal men. You’re disqualified.

      Sure, let’s have us another debate soon.

  8. MelK

    Sorry, Shapiro loses her appeal for quoting the wrong law. She should be referring to Sturgeon’s Law, which reducing the amount of speech isn’t going to change.

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