“We Need More Vigorous Debate”: A Conversation with Michael S. Roth

Michael S. Roth discusses the challenges of promoting free speech on college campuses.

“We Need More Vigorous Debate”: A Conversation with Michael S. Roth

THERE ARE MYRIAD ISSUES facing colleges today as they carry out their mission of higher education. Controversies over affirmative action and political correctness, which have been raging for decades, have only intensified since Trump’s election. Perhaps no issue has gathered more national attention than freedom of speech. When reactionary speakers, such as a Steve Bannon or Charles Murray, have been invited by conservative groups to college campuses, they have been protested — and sometimes shouted down — by progressive students and faculty on the grounds that they are racist or fascist threats to liberal democracy. In response, conservative students and campus organizations have accused these liberal groups of being politically correct “snowflakes.”

Much of this debate is related to the divisive issue of affirmative action in college admissions, which continues to face judicial threats over its legality, as well as claims about alleged “reverse discrimination” by white students. And yet the policy continues to have its own problems: historically underrepresented groups who are often its beneficiaries regularly point out that they find little support once they arrive on campus. More generally, the desire for a sense of greater inclusion can lead to mass student protest against academic curricula that emphasize the Western European canon, criticism of student meal plans that are insensitive to the culinary traditions of minority students, or outcry over Halloween customs that are perceived to insult the heritage of nonwhite students. 

Are these divides mere symptoms of the larger issues politically separating Americans? Or are institutions of higher education to blame for the latest outbreak of the culture wars in the age of Trump? What, if anything, can provide a way forward, beyond these divisive impasses?

As president of Wesleyan University, Michael Roth brings a wealth of knowledge and firsthand experience to these questions. An accomplished historian of modern Europe, his most recent books have been devoted to liberal arts education, of which he has become one of the United States’s most noted champions. His latest book has received considerable attention: Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses (2019). In it, Roth stakes out a pragmatic position amid the noisy debates surrounding affirmative action, political correctness, and free speech.

I spoke with Roth spoke about these debates, the larger culture wars, and his thinking on education today.


DANIEL STEINMETZ-JENKINS: You’ve had a rather unique career path. You started your career as an academic historian of modern European intellectual thought, went on to become the associate director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and for over a decade now have been the president of Wesleyan University, where you write books on liberal education. Is there a thread that runs through these various steps of your career, which connects to your current interest in debates involving education and administrative work?

MICHAEL ROTH: As a European intellectual historian, I had the great good fortune to be a student of Hayden White as an undergraduate and Dick Rorty and Carl Schorske as a graduate student. I wrote a senior thesis on Freud as a theorist of history, and a dissertation on the impact of Hegelianism on French philosophy’s use of the past in the 20th century. The former became my first book [Psycho-Analysis as History: Negation and Freedom in Freud (1987)] and the structure of a Library of Congress exhibition, Freud: Conflict & Culture; the latter was the basis for a series of works on the theory of history [e.g., The Ironist’s Cage: Memory, Trauma, and the Construction of History (1995)]. All this research had to do with how we make sense of the past. That’s been my subject, whether I was writing on 19th-century diagnoses of memory disorders or problems of anti-historical poststructuralism.

I wanted to find another way of participating in the world of scholarship as I took on more substantial administrative duties at the Getty Research Institute and then as president of the California College of the Arts and then Wesleyan. I continued to write essays and review books in newspapers and academic journals, but as I saw liberal education under attack, I decided to write book-length essays defending the kind of education that I have seen serve so many so well.

Let’s transition to the new book. The literature devoted to debates involving freedom of speech and political correctness on college campuses is voluminous. Being a university president affords you a unique perspective on these issues. In this regard, when you set out to write Safe Enough Spaces, what did you hope to add to the discussion? 

I write on these topics from the perspective of someone who must work with students and faculty and not from the perspective of a commentator who can just complain about the culture in general. I take an intellectual historian’s approach to the idea of “political correctness,” tracing how it has been used by Marxists in the mid-20th century, by feminists 50 years ago, and by pundits today. By the 1990s, it was common knowledge that you could attract a crowd of supporters by attacking political correctness, and in recent years we have seen that anyone with access to a keyboard or a microphone can find an audience by complaining about it. Many who whine bitterly about a monolithic PC culture on college campuses are themselves, paradoxically, working within universities and their adjacent institutions. They don’t seem to be silenced.

Some of these well-meaning folks believed they were themselves liberal, and now they claim (loudly, as it so happens) that they are afraid to speak at all. Accusing those with whom you disagree of being PC has become a rhetorical reflex that may signal who your friends and enemies are, but it’s a reflex that’s otherwise intellectually vacuous.

Contrary to what one reads, it’s clear to just about everybody that freedom of expression is essential for education and for democracy. At the same time, students are well aware of how the concept of free speech is being used to advance a libertarian or market-based approach to a variety of political issues on the national level. Student support for freedom of expression is strong, but they are suspicious of a contextual appeal to pure principle; they want to know more about the agenda of those making such appeals. In any case, there are always limitations on speech, and there are some things, after all, that a university typically refuses to legitimate or dignify by treating them as fit subjects for academic discussion. I argue that we must defend freedom of expression, but we must beware of how the defense of speech is used as a fig leaf for intimidating those with less power.

Your book takes a principled stand in favor of affirmative action. Yet you note that, over the last decade, there has been a shift at liberal arts colleges away from emphasizing the value of diversity to stressing the value of inclusion. Can you spell out what you mean by this?

Affirmative action controversies at colleges and universities are about admissions, and they usually focus on highly selective institutions. It is always difficult to make an argument that some people deserve to get into a selective school more than, say, the first thousand applicants who are rejected. There are simply many more qualified applicants than there are spots available at these schools. In arguments about access, everybody loses. There will always be complaints that someone had an unfair advantage in the process (and some do). In this charged context, it is the responsibility of college admissions departments not to choose “the best” or “the most deserving” but to bring in a class that makes it possible for all students to benefit from a diverse student body; the responsibility of the institution is to create an environment in which people can learn with and from folks different from themselves. But at the level of an individual applicant, there are bound to be grievances.

So, it’s unsurprising that the conversation has moved from affirmative action and diversity to inclusion and equity. Nobody is against creating an environment in which everybody feels included on a campus. In arguing about whether we need to improve inclusion, everybody wins. Sure, there will be differences about which tactics to use to promote inclusion, but nobody is in principle against it. It’s just easier to talk about inclusion than it is to argue about access. It also allows those who benefited from affirmative action to articulate how the culture of an institution can still fail its students by not giving them as complete and well rounded an education as is provided to students from privileged communities. Students don’t want to argue that they deserved to get in (who really knows the answer to that?), but they do want to argue that, once on campus, they deserve to get the full benefits of the institution.

The left today is often marked by a tension between those who stress the politics of racial and ethnic identity and those who prioritize economic exploitation based on class. Your book shows just how divisive this debate is among faculty and administrators. Of course, these two positions are not mutually exclusive, but your book provides ample evidence that educators are fundamentally divided on the issue. Where do you stand?

Institutions that want to enhance belonging and overcome the privileges wealthy students enjoy generally have hard choices to make in allocating resources. Do they devote more financial aid to bring in more low-income students, or do they provide funds to help a smaller number of low-income students truly flourish? If a selective private school has, say, 15 percent Pell-eligible students, it might set a target of increasing financial aid resources so as to enroll 25 percent of these low-income undergrads in the future. Alternatively, with more resources, it can set the goals of providing greater academic and psychological support for the cohort it already has. Most institutions find it difficult to do either, and very few can do both (although the wealthiest certainly can). Of course, schools that are not committed to enrolling low-income students (or don’t have the financial resources to do so) can fall back on the inequities of the American educational system to feel better about enrolling a disproportionately wealthy student body. In other words, in the aggregate, low-income students won’t have opportunities for as good a high school education as rich kids do, so colleges can fall back on the explanation that they can’t find qualified candidates.

At Wesleyan, we have found qualified candidates who can’t afford the high cost of a residential liberal arts university, and about half our students are on very substantial financial aid scholarships. My plan is to enroll more Pell-eligible students because I believe the cultural issues of inclusion can be worked out on campus. But if we don’t bring the students to campus, there is no inclusion to be worked out!

How much of today’s debates about free speech, “political correctness,” and diversity is simply the latest reiteration of what emerged from the student protest movements of the 1960s? Or, for that matter, the debate over the crisis of higher education during the 1980s, as represented by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987)?

To be sure, there are a lot of continuities. In the aftermath of the 1960s, critics dismissed youthful protest using the sort of psychological reductionism we find in recent critiques of campus intolerance and political correctness. The conservative religious pundit Norman Vincent Peale, for example, wrote that “the U.S. was paying the price of two generations that followed the Dr. Spock baby plan of instant gratification of needs,” and Vice President Spiro Agnew chimed in, blaming Spock for the “permissiveness” that led to spirited, radical disorder. These infantile explanations were embraced by conservative adults, who contemptuously labeled protestors “the Spock generation.”

Allan Bloom certainly created a successful template in his surprise best seller. Bloom famously painted a picture in which an unconscious commitment to equality and a refusal to make judgments about the truth of ideas combined to ensure that nobody would pursue fundamental questions, such as “how one should live” or “what the good life is,” with the seriousness they deserved. He argued that the students around him thought they were open-minded, but it was a contemptible “openness of indifference.” With his widely read book, Bloom transformed himself from isolated, mandarin professor to celebrated conservative scold by excoriating students for their addiction to sexualized rock music and their deafness to the higher pleasures of philosophical (Straussian) contemplation.

Over the past 30 years, his complaints have been repeated by a herd of academic pundits trying to reach a wide book-buying audience by attacking leftist professors (“tenured radicals”), conformist undergraduates (“excellent sheep”), or overprotected students (“coddled” minds).

Speaking of Bloom, the former dean of Yale Law School, Anthony T. Kronman, recently published The Assault on American Excellence (2019), which sees today’s controversies over free speech on campus — what he perceives as “the babying of students” — as a real threat to democracy. You wrote a critical review of this book. What is the ideology or general philosophy of education that motivates arguments as such Kronman’s, and how does it differ from your own?

The ideology that motivates Kronman’s book, and so many academic complaints about students today, is elitism coupled with nostalgia. The former dean of Yale Law School remembers the days when he was a student and a young professor, and with his rose-colored glasses he sees those days as a time when discourse was civil and academic authority was respected (even when political authority was not). He really seems to believe that those who study the classics of the West will become less conventional, more open-minded, and more adept at assuming positions of leadership. Seminar conversation has an ethic of its own, he thinks, encouraging students to become self-reflective, to leave behind conventional opinion, and to explore with freedom and independence what it is to live as fully as possible.

I agree that this is a powerful description of liberal education and the openness to the “moral ambiguity” it creates. Alas, Kronman goes on to assert that this education helps students become members of a natural aristocracy, developing a “superior character” that should result in such people being “elevated to positions of leadership with sufficient frequency for the regime to survive.” This is nonsense. At least it is not relevant to political leadership beyond the borders of the Yale campus.

If some students are “babied” at some universities, this has more to do with the consumerism of our culture (and of the corporate university in which the customer is always right) than it does with not pushing undergraduates to study the classics of the West. By the way, I myself teach these classics every year.

We live in an age of radical inequality. For a long time now, opportunities have been hoarded by the wealthy and powerful, while the traditional paths for social advancement, especially higher education, seem increasingly to be used to reproduce privilege rather than to promote mobility. I am concerned not with protecting bastions of natural aristocracy but with enabling colleges and universities to empower students to change the trajectories of their lives. Education should help our students thrive after they graduate — to lead lives of meaning and purpose, while contributing to the communities to which they belong.

There have been several notable cases across the country in which prestigious universities have disinvited controversial speakers due to student and faculty protest. As your book explains, during your tenure at Wesleyan several invited speakers have caused considerable controversy on campus. In 2012, the late Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the Hugo L. Black Lecture on Freedom of Expression, and the following year Aharon Barak, a former president of Israel’s Supreme Court, received this invitation. Both events were protested but did take place, and you defended the events in the name of freedom of speech. Can you explain your thinking here a bit more? Why do you believe that disinviting controversial speakers is problematic? Also, do you think safe spaces need to be in place to facilitate such speakers?

When Justice Scalia accepted the invitation, he said that he had heard positive feedback about the lecture series and Wesleyan from his former law clerk, Lawrence Lessig, who had spoken at Wesleyan a couple of years before that. I was very impressed by Justice Scalia’s comment. After all, everyone knows how far to the right Justice Scalia was, and Professor Lessig is pretty far along the opposite end of the political spectrum. It seemed to me a very good thing that these two men were in conversation about our program on the First Amendment, and that Justice Scalia seemed to have respect and affection for a legal theorist with whom he undoubtedly differs on a slew of important issues.

Predictably, some faculty and students objected to inviting to campus a public figure with whom they fiercely disagree. Less predictably, hundreds of Wesleyan students lined up to get tickets to the event (I wish we had had more seats!). This didn’t mean they wanted to hear views they will find congenial. Rather, they wanted to hear a powerful advocate for a point of view that is having a decisive impact on the country. They wanted argument and disagreement — not an echo of their own thoughts. They wanted an educational environment.

Although as a citizen I frequently found myself opposed to Justice Scalia’s views, as a professor and college president I was ready to hear them expressed in the setting of a public lecture. We need more vigorous debate on campus about political issues, and debate that does not just feature different views from the same sector of the ideological spectrum. We live in very polarized times, when differences of opinion quickly give rise to personal attacks on the one hand, and to retreats into like-minded groups on the other. Sure, people may at first seek out others who share their strongly held views, but that kind of ideological and cognitive reinforcement is anti-educational.

I should say that I do think Justice Scalia did more harm to the interpretation of the Constitution than anyone in the last 100 years. It was worth protesting his presence on campus, and many of my friends did so. But when a faculty committee recommended that I invite him to give a talk, I also recognized that I might be mistaken, and that listening to him argue for his views was a chance to find out. That doesn’t mean we should invite clowns and provocateurs to campus to prove our free speech bona fides — just that we should be open to real disagreement about serious issues in our public lectures and in our classrooms.

Yet, interestingly, you are quite critical of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s best-selling The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), whose viewpoint you characterize as typical of the middle-aged person “who finds the ways of college students to be alien, and this makes them feel out of touch, unsympathetic to the young.” Is it correct to say that you are trying to find the middle ground between the “shutdown” tactics of the left and the “snowflake” rhetoric of the right?

Yes, I suppose that I am trying to find a path different from what I regard as similar ways of closing off conversation and inquiry. I don’t think it makes sense for professors to complain about students being coddled or being incapable of tolerating disagreement. This just means that these professors regard students as not being really educable. If one feels that way as a teacher, it just means one is failing at one’s job — it’s not the fault of the students. Our job as teachers is to open students to a variety of points of view so that they can engage in further inquiry and thoughtful, creative practices. I don’t think most of my students are spoiled, nor are most of them oversensitive. In any case, my role as a teacher is to move them to frames of mind more open to discovery, reflection, and creative expression.

Although I disagree with Lukianoff and Haidt’s diagnosis of students as spoiled and oversensitive, I do agree with their efforts to create more vigorous heterodoxy on campuses. We must resist creating echo chambers of thought, whether that’s in the name of a search for truth, or for the sake of patriotism, or on behalf of progressive social justice.

The last chapter of your book spends a good deal of time discussing Mark Lilla’s controversial 2016 New York Times op-ed piece, which appeared shortly after Trump won the election, titled “The End of Identity Liberalism,” in addition to the book that appeared in that op-ed’s wake, The Once and Future Liberal (2017). Lilla blamed identity politics for Trump’s victory, and he held higher education accountable. Universities spend too much time, he argued, telescoping education through the lens of identity and not enough time training students to think like citizens. Safe Enough Spaces seems both sympathetic toward and critical of this analysis. Can you explain why?

I agree with Lilla that colleges and universities must do a much better job of educating students to understand the mechanisms of power and how to engage in electoral politics so as to exercise that power more equitably. Sophisticated skepticism, no matter how multilayered or “intersectional,” should not be an excuse for giving up on the practices of electoral politics. The task on college campuses is not just to make each and every group feel it can flourish by digging into its own identity.

But who can blame students and their teachers for being skeptical about calls to go beyond group identity? Calls to leave behind the “narrow” identities of race and gender, for example, have often meant erasing the concerns of women, sexual minorities, and people of color in the name of some more general solidarity. Movement politics, derided as it is by mainstream critics, is characterized by protest and civic participation not limited to the ballot box, and for these reasons it may prove to be helpful in making our politics in the future more inclusive. One can hope, despite the occasional outbursts of intolerance, that students and professors engaged in the study of identity and difference will be more prepared to reject coalition building that replicates the old scapegoating and erasures. New coalitions are surely needed, but not on the terms of the old ones.

There is a great issue facing the “once and future liberal” today, and it’s not how to overcome identity politics. The great issue for liberals and conservatives alike is how to overcome inequality. It’s not today’s campus activists who make coalition building so difficult; it’s the dramatic increase of economic inequality that undermines the belief that the democratic process can be used to address deeply entrenched social ills. Solidarity and coalition building become more tenuous absent interactions with fellow citizens who don’t belong to your socioeconomic group. Lilla is right that we need an “inspiring, optimistic vision” for America, but that will be only shallow political branding if we don’t find ways to deal with economic inequality while acknowledging our differences.

Last question. Books like Bloom’s, Lukianoff and Haidt’s, Lilla’s, and Kronman’s all suggest that that the fate of American democracy depends on higher education. This is a rather old-fashioned and elitist perspective, suggesting that a handful of expensive elite schools are responsible for democracy’s survival. The reality of the situation is rather different. Our populist age is a reaction to the anarchy of global finance and social media, and the constant development of new technologies that provide alternative sources of information and thus education. You are a defender of the liberal arts. What does it mean to defend the liberal arts given this reality today?

A broad, contextual education is not a panacea for the complex challenges before us, but a narrow, specialized form of learning will be disempowering and will only make matters worse. I defend pragmatic liberal education not because I think educated elites can save us but because I believe that this kind of learning can be empowering for anyone trying to understand our culture and society.

As I said, this is an age of radical inequality. Opportunities are hoarded by the wealthy and powerful, while the traditional paths for social advancement, especially higher education, seem increasingly to be used to reproduce privilege rather than to promote mobility. This is a profound problem, and I agree that it won’t be solved just by changing the practices of fancy, highly selective colleges and universities. But it is a problem that won’t even be understood without a capacious liberal education. That kind of training should be available at any institution of higher education, from community colleges to those that are most exclusive.


Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is the managing editor of Modern Intellectual History and a postdoctoral researcher in the History Department at Dartmouth College. He is writing a book for Columbia University Press titled Raymond Aron and Cold War Liberalism.

LARB Contributor

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is the managing editor of Modern Intellectual History and a postdoctoral researcher in the History Department at Dartmouth College. He is writing a book for Columbia University Press titled Raymond Aron and Cold War Liberalism.


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