This weekend, the political scientist Yascha Mounk posed a provocative question on Twitter: “What are the top things universities could do to encourage a culture of free debate and inquiry, not just in the classroom but also in dorms and dining halls?”
(Judging by the context, this question may have been prompted in part by a new “campus expression” report from Heterodox Academy. I discussed the problems with a previous report from the same alarmist study in March 2021.)
Here’s the thing: Because my academic work centers on teaching first-year college students, I ponder issues like this a lot, and I believe Mounk is on the wrong trail.
The thing most people asking this question are actually probing for? It’s not debate. It’s friendship.
Setting aside the intellectual shifts that can happen just because of spending time around new kinds of people, when extracurricular life changes minds, it’s typically because students are forming real friendships, in which important conversations happen organically—not because of a “culture of free debate.”
All those people who wistfully remember (or wish they remember) late nights in each other’s dorm rooms, talking excitedly about the problems of the world? The experience they’re describing is friendship.
When a conversation about something you’re reading or discussing in class spills out into the dining hall, the quad, or the apartment? Why, yes, I do believe you’ve been making friends.
The folks you aren’t afraid of offending when you say something unpopular that needs to be said? They’re either strangers you don’t expect to hang around anyway, acquaintances you’ve already given up on, or, crucially, friends who will trust you enough to listen to what you’re saying.
People who will, in the middle of a busy life, actually sit still while you carefully identify your premises and show why you think they lead to a controversial conclusion? They’re almost certainly people who care about you as a person.
And when you keep having the same argument with the same person over and over, not because you love degrading yourself but because you’re subtly shifting each other’s views over time? “As iron sharpens iron,” you’re honing the mind of your—what’s that word the proverb uses?—oh, that’s right—your friend.
The contemporary world is full of free debate and inquiry. We’re drowning in it. Public faith in democracy—and in the value of debate—is dying from it. When we’ve got the entire Internet at our disposal, a culture of free debate and inquiry is the least exceptional thing college can offer.
What intellectually curious people really want from college is friendship. The kind that can change the mind as well as heal the spirit.
This same weekend, the culture critic Touré posed another observation on Twitter that I believe is directly related to the fears our intellectuals express about college students: “After 35 it’s easier to get a new spouse than it is to get a new close friend.”
Now, I’m not sure that’s literally true, but the anguish it expresses is recognizable.
And I suspect—though of course, I can’t prove—that when aging college graduates like Yascha Mounk, my fellow geriatric millennial, bemoan the supposed intolerance of today’s young people, it often has a lot to do with how increasingly elusive that kind of friendship seems to us.