IHS President: Liberalism Is the Mother of Innovation

When you look at rising illiberalism around the world, American skirmishes about campus culture might seem silly, IHS president Emily Chamlee-Wright says in a new essay for the Charles Koch Foundation’s “Driving Discovery” series.

“Take, for example, Hungary,” Chamlee-Wright writes, “where Prime Minister Viktor Orban orchestrated a takeover of the country’s university system by his own hard-right nationalist party. State authorities around the world routinely use detentions, prosecutions, and laws imposed in the name of national security to restrict scholars’ research, teaching, commentary, and affiliations.”

Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright
IHS President and CEO, Emily Chamlee-Wright

Meanwhile, the consequences American professors and scholars might face for controversial speech and scholarship are less draconian: possibly a university investigation, “cancellation,” a reputational hit, lost friends, and occasionally, a lost job.

But these “gentler” consequences should still worry you, Chamlee-Wright argues.

“The impulse that makes us shudder at the thought of state police arresting a scholar for expressing opposition to those in power is the same impulse that resists thought policing on the American university campus,” she writes. “We shudder at both because we recognize, instinctively, the value of liberalism.”

Enlightenment-era liberalism “constrains government and populist impulses that would otherwise choke the freedoms of individuals and minorities who do not hold the reins of power or conform to popular opinion,” Chamlee-Wright says.

In other words, the liberal attitude is marked by intellectual openness: We tolerate speech that we don’t agree with.

This attitude is essential for universities, and if we lose it, we lose the best engine of human progress. Liberalism “awakens human curiosity, ingenuity, and creativity,” Chamlee-Wright writes. It is, in other words, “the mother of innovation.”

“The liberal sensibility that welcomes dissent is a key cultural feature of the open university,” Chamlee-Wright writes. “Any university deserving the label must be, fundamentally, a space of contestation — a space where ideas can be tested, rejected, improved, and tested again. Without a culture of contestation, innovation dies.”

The Charles Koch Foundation’s “Driving Discovery” series brings together “a diverse group of scholars, nonprofit leaders, and advocates who are willing to offer their unique perspectives on how openness drives human progress.”

Read Emily Chamlee-Wright’s essay, “Liberalism: The Mother of Innovation,” on the Charles Koch Foundation website. 

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