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Visum Monachae… On Intellectual Freedom

Sister Edith Bogue

Last month, protesters shouted Charles Murray off the podium at Middlebury College, an elite school in Vermont. A controversial social scientist, he had been invited to speak by a Middlebury student organization. He was able to live stream the talk from a different location and respond to challenging questions by political science professor Allison Stanger. When they tried to leave the building, masked protesters mobbed them and attacked their car. Both were shaken up; Dr. Stanger required medical treatment for her injuries.

This is one of several episodes in which protest, sometimes threatening violence, resulted in the cancellation or disruption of talks by Murray, journalist Rania Khalek, or provocateur Milo Yiannopolous and others. It interested me because I use one of Murray’s books in a social issues class.

I alert my student’s to Murray’s reputation and his supercilious tone before we begin to read his 2012 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. We study reviews of the book, and watch friendly and hostile interviews as the term progresses. Murray observes that white Americans are polarized into two distinct groups, each with its own culture. He argues that the choices and behaviors of the two groups perpetuate the divide. Elite families provide resources so that their children remain elite, while working class families pass along neither the stability nor the resources to enable their children to move up. He supports his analysis with an avalanche of data.

I teach with this book because of the clarity of his argument and evidence, and because many students will disagree vehemently with his claims. “Many people agree with Murray’s ideas,” I tell the students. “Just as many find them repugnant. That’s the reality of social and political life. Our job is to learn to examine his assumptions, his evidence, and the logic with which he builds the argument. Then you can build your own solid argument for or against his views.”

My CSS students were skeptical that they would find the book so irritating. A week later, one began class by declaring, “I hate him, but I don’t know how to refute him yet.” They pored over government data to check his methodology. A few consulted with biology majors to evaluate his genetics claims. We tried out arguments for and against him in lively discussions. By the end of the semester, I think the class would have enjoyed a chance to question Murray in person.

These students were enjoying the fruits of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which commits to seeking truth wherever the evidence leads. Law professor Geoffrey Stone recently pointed to the humility required by this tradition. “Once, everyone knew women belonged at home and slavery was acceptable. Now we know otherwise. Intellectual freedom requires us to consider challenges even to our closely held beliefs.”

The variety of student groups, lectures, movies, and events on campus offers each of us opportunities to encounter ideas that make us uncomfortable. Use those opportunities. This is the root of the Love of Learning.

Sister Edith Bogue has a lifelong love of learning, which she shares as a sociology faculty member at CSS and vocations minister in the monastery.