Bret Stephens at Hampden-Sydney College Commencement: On Leaving the “Safe Spaces” of College Life Behind

Former Wall Street Journal, and now New York Times, columnist Bret Stephens recently delivered the commencement address to graduating seniors at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. The text of his speech has been printed by the Times, and it is well worth reading. Stephens discusses the notion of safe spaces and how they relate to the meaning of liberal education. He writes,

In the name of being safe, we are gravely jeopardizing the central task of any serious liberal education, which is not — or not merely — the transmission of knowledge.

It is, rather, the cultivation of a certain kind of spirit: a passion for inquiry; an insistence on asking hard questions and challenging received wisdom; a reveling in argument; a productive tension between self-confidence and self-doubt; a robust faith in the ultimate attainability of truth; and a humble acceptance that our understanding of the truth will almost always be something less than complete.

This is what education is, or ought to be, about. This is how we educate young men and women toward the moral and political responsibilities of democratic self-rule. This is how we lay the conditions for scientific and social progress. This is how we lay sturdy foundations for a truly civil society. Thomas Jefferson said it best in his first Inaugural Address: “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

Let me repeat that, so that you may commit the words to memory: “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” When you can’t speak freely, sooner or later it becomes difficult to think clearly. God did not give you a mouth in order to keep it shut. And the Constitution does not include a Bill of Rights so that we may refrain from exercising our rights.

This should be a standard for every free society — and for every great college and university.

The full text of the speech can be found here. Links to Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural, along with many other writings on free inquiry, can be found here.

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