Jon Meacham is among the nation’s preeminent presidential historians, a writer and academic whose work is broadly respected. He won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Andrew Jackson — “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” — and is now a distinguished professor in the political science department at Vanderbilt University. He is also a well-known speaker and pundit whose calm and thoughtful manner appeals to those who value civility in public discourse.
None of that, though, was good enough for a cadre of conservative students at Alabama’s Samford University. Objecting because Meacham had made a speech at a Texas Planned Parenthood luncheon last month, they circulated a petition demanding that Meacham be disinvited as one of the speakers honoring the installation of a new college president. The Student Government Association passed a resolution with the same demand. The administration complied and revoked the invitation.
This is embarrassing for Samford, a small Christian institution that aspires to scholarly acclaim in my home state, which has so little of that. The new president, Dr. Beck Taylor, caved when he should have shown courage. In an announcement he posted, Taylor recognized “the vital importance of free expression and civil discourse in an academic community like Samford.” But he did not champion those values.
Among Samford’s conservative beliefs are a rigid opposition to abortion; it is the right of that private institution to inculcate that belief in its students. But Meacham was not set to lecture on abortion. (He didn’t talk about abortion at the Planned Parenthood luncheon, either.) The students’ petition acknowledged as much: “Although his plan for this lecture is focused more on social injustices, the problem lies within the beliefs and previous engagements of Mr. Meacham.” They could not bear listening to a speaker whose unstated beliefs differed from their own.
This reverence for a dogmatic cohesion to a narrow set of beliefs is cascading through our politics, our education and our culture, destroying not only critical thinking but also the very diversity that should be the bedrock of a pluralistic democracy. That rigidity is especially upsetting when it is displayed by a college, which ought to be a model for a diversity of views. Students should constantly interact with challenging ideas, learning to examine them. Some of those ideas they will eventually accept, some they will reject, but they will have learned the value of thinking through them. A vigorous democracy depends on citizens who can reason and think critically.
But a growing illiberalism is walling groups into silos that are ever more strongly defended. And the tendency to demand a rigid adherence to dogma isn’t exclusive to political conservatives. Political liberals have been guilty as well.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently disinvited a distinguished geophysicist to speak because he has opposed affirmative action. Dorian Abbot was scheduled to speak on climate change, which he has studied, not on affirmative action. But several faculty members and students demanded that his invitation be revoked. That hardly shows a commitment to a diversity of thought — or to scientific inquiry, for that matter. (I write that as an enthusiastic supporter of affirmative action in college hiring and admissions.)
To be clear, this is no brief for liars, science-deniers or propagators of “alternative facts.” This is no plea for the clowns, the charlatans or especially the cynics — those who know better — who insist that the last presidential election was stolen through massive voter fraud. The U.S. Constitution protects their right to spew falsehoods, but they should never be handed a prominent podium. Facts are not fungible.
But there is little hope for this nation’s democratic experiment if so many of our citizens cannot bear to hear fact-based beliefs that are different from their own. Shouldn’t each of us be able to inspect our views to see if they hold up to the scrutiny of reason? If you can’t bear to do that, there might be something suspect at the core of your beliefs.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at email@example.com.