Higher education’s highest purpose

09-29-2016

Every September around Constitution Day, we at MSU make it a point to reflect on the Constitution of the United States and its meaning to our lives today.

This year, two noted experts will debate the timely topic of immigration and open borders at an October 6 event at the Kellogg Center, and I encourage the campus community to attend and discuss.

Especially in an election year, it’s important to remember American democracy is based on the notion that in an unfettered marketplace of ideas an informed citizenry will arrive at the best choices. That’s one reason my predecessor John Hannah called development of “citizen-scholars” the highest purpose of higher education.

The wisdom of this notion is put to the test regularly, and this year presents some stark choices.

Underlying many of the issues and arguments is whether this policy or that idea conforms to the foundational document of American government. Opinions will differ over what was meant at the writing of the Constitution or what it should mean today, but a working familiarity with the document itself is a prerequisite for any meaningful discussion.

The often-messy clash of ideas and interpretations is fundamental to our society. I’ve written before about the necessity of respecting freedom of expression, and I think the State News put it very well in a September 23 editorial: “MSU has had a long history of campus activism, which in itself is something to be celebrated. But when that spills over into active shunning of speakers who don't fit into the narrative of the progressive culture of higher education, it reflects poorly on the school.”

I would only add that attempting to silence unpopular voices reinforces the need for this country’s citizen-scholars to return time and again to reexamine and reflect on the Constitution and the society it was meant to guide.

We live in an age when provocative messages are given unprecedented exposure by ubiquitous media. The best response is not to shut down the outlet, but to offer a better alternative. That’s the American way. Check it out in the Constitution.

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