May 20

The right to learn comes before the right to free speech

Why universities should encourage developing knowledge-based opinions

Published in The Concordian in August 2017

I believe freedom of speech on college and university campuses should be limited when it jeopardizes academic endeavours. Academic institutions were originally intended to provide a wide understanding of the world through the lenses of the fields students were interested in. Research was mostly done to be able to understand certain phenomena, rather than to prove a certain ideology right or wrong.

This is where programs such as gender studies, First Peoples studies and exchange programs can be beneficial. When completed with academic rigor, they shed light on issues and perspectives that are unknown to those who don’t experience them firsthand.

As learners of the world, students should be exposed to as much knowledge as possible in order to take informed stances and develop thoughtful perspectives on various issues. I believe that advocates for free speech on university campuses often skip over another important right: the right to know as much as possible about a topic. The right to access information as free from censorship, bias and prioritization as possible before forming an opinion on a subject. However, the atmosphere of higher education has shifted to a more active and socially involved mindset which leads people to skip this first step that is necessary for them to form accurate and truthful opinions.

Universities have become a place where students can be more active about social issues and take on more significant roles inside the learning institution. For instance, the student strike in 2012 and the much earlier Concordia computer riots of 1969 proved it’s possible to apply physical force to disrupt classes and stop people from learning in order to demonstrate one’s political beliefs.

I fondly remember the first few times I entered the Hall building in the winter of 2016 and saw the big red and black CSU banners decrying tuition hikes and advocating for fossil fuel divestment. I was a new student at the time, and I felt intellectually too young to take a side. I needed to learn more about what was going on before I could jump on the bandwagon and express myself with words and slogans I’d feel comfortable standing by.

This is where the shift has occurred on college and university campuses. Students today form arguments on matters prior to considering all of the existing arguments and facts on the topic. I don’t think this is a positive change, as it makes it easier to disrupt people’s learning by creating tensions between those who hold opposite views. We must consider the possibility that many students advocate for ideas they hold as truths before they even fully understand what their message entails.

Most of us don’t take enough time to wonder why we hold certain opinions, as it just seems “obvious” that it’s the right one. Freedom of speech allows you to say what you believe, but what many forget is you first need to know whether what you want to say is, in fact, true.

This is where the rigor and methodology of academia comes in handy. In class, you need to cite evidence, formulate sound and logical arguments that stand together and, more importantly, you have to understand the opposite view.

I hope this won’t be forgotten as many more students use their freedom of speech to become involved in activism of all sorts. A new academic year is beginning at Concordia, and I know that many students will jump in the ring to advocate for certain issues that resonate with them.

I hope they won’t forget that Concordia means “harmony” in Latin. Even though no one will ever be satisfied with the level of free speech they are given on campus, hopefully we’ll all strive to create a harmonious place of learning with a safe and self-improving mindset.

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