Letter to the Editor: What are the Liberal Arts?

By RICHARD PORTER

From a distance of years and hundreds of miles, it appears Middlebury is unmoored and has lost its distinct sense of self as a place apart: an oasis of rigorous and unfettered intellectual inquiry and personal growth. 

Middlebury once was and should always be more than a capitalist boot camp or a totalitarian trade school. Middlebury was and should be an institution dedicated to excellence in the liberal arts. 

I hope we have a common understanding that a liberal arts institution, if it wishes to be liberal, cultivates all ideas except its opposite. If a liberal institution encourages the illiberal too, if a liberal institution does not confront and reject those who wish to make it illiberal, then it will not survive as what it was. 

Middlebury was and should be an institution dedicated to excellence in the liberal arts. ”

Giving totalitarian ideas and impulses equal standing as just another option among the smorgasbord of ideas acceptable at the institution is an invitation to the destruction of the liberal mission itself.  

In that context, witness the SGA’s demands at go/13.

This boggles — celebrating the 55th anniversary edition of Mao Zedong’s red book, the SGA wants a cultural revolution in the Green Mountains, complete with mandatory re-education, shaming of elders by the young, who also demand “community standards” for permissible ideas.  

This is not just a question of “free speech.”  Indeed “free speech” absent of a shared commitment to intellectual rigor, risk-taking, moral equality and a growth mindset may be a cudgel used against freedom itself.  Indeed, the illiberal among you already use “free speech” to justify the protests used to bludgeon the liberal among you into silence and compliance. 

Freedom is dangerous, unsettling, exciting, frightening, challenging and mind-expanding.  As you read that, did you think of freedom for yourself or freedom for others?  While most of us crave our own freedom, some fear freedom for all. 

Don’t be that person.  

A commitment to excellence in the liberal arts requires standards supporting and buttressing the freedom of all. Freedom with the un-waivable expectation of self-governance and personal restraint. Yes, community standards as to the process of inquiry, not the topics of inquiry. Community standards as to rigor in research, analysis, organization, critique, rhetoric and exposition — because a thought well-expressed is always better developed. 

These are the liberal arts — the arts of exercising freedom in a world of moral equality. Thugs browbeat, mobs chant, tyrants seek to intimidate and silence. 

This is why protesting ideas or speakers has no place at an intellectual institution committed to the liberal arts. The protest culture that has developed there is antithetical to Middlebury’s mission.  

Sure, it’s appropriate for each person to have access to a venue or an outlet for their views. Folks of common interest can and should be free to get together to express their ideas, and seek to promote them in The Campus, or with leaflets, or other non-coercive, respectful ways. Indeed, everyone should be challenged to research, organize and express their thoughts as clearly and persuasively as possible. 

Are you at Middlebury to pursue the liberal arts? Then, you must stand up against its opposite. Do you have standards and expectations for excellence in the pursuit of ideas and expression and research and creativity? Then you must reject the impulse to browbeat and silence and instead embrace the challenge of persuasion. 

Dogs require training. Drones are programmed.  The liberal arts are for those who believe free minds operating fearlessly and diligently in the pursuit of excellence will create a better world for all.  

A great school is a terrible thing to see laid to waste.

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