In Defense of Free Speech


Meets once a week for 8 weeks
4 – 9 learners, ages 13-18

Traditionally, our society has broadly agreed that good schools should teach the intellectual skills students need to become citizens who are intelligently critical of their own beliefs and of the narratives presented by politicians, society, the media, and, indeed, schools themselves. The freedom to debate is essential to the development of critical thought, but on school campuses today free speech is increasingly restricted for fear of causing offense.

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Looming over this whole debate is a terrible temptation: the assumption that since you know that virtue is on your side, truth must be on your side – and that an honest effort to perceive the truth is immoral. (Flynn, 2019)

This course surveys the underlying factors that circumscribe the range of ideas tolerated in our institutions of learning. Learners will critically examine the way schools censor their teaching, how student activism tends to censor the opposing side, and how academics censor themselves.

The principle of free speech and the arguments in its favor apply to the political world as well as the academic and scientific one. As Michael Shermer explained in his 2015 book The Moral Arc:

Democracies developed in response to the monarchic autocracies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and to the dictatorship regimes of the 20th century because democracies empower individuals with a methodology instead of an ideology, and it is to this extent that we can see that the scientific values of reason, empiricism, and anti-authoritarianism are not the product of liberal democracy but the producers of it. Democratic elections are analogous to scientific experiments: every couple of years you carefully alter the variables with an election and observe the results. If you want different results, change the variables. The political system in the United States is often called the “American experiment,” and the founding patriarchs referred to it as such, and thought of this experiment in democracy as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Many of the founding fathers were, in fact, scientists who deliberately adapted the method of data gathering, hypothesis testing, and theory formation to their nation-building. Their understanding of the provisional nature of findings led them to develop a social system in which doubt and dispute were the centerpieces of a functional polity. Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, and the others thought of social governance as a problem to be solved rather than as power to be grabbed. They thought of democracy in the same way that they thought of science—as a method, not an ideology. They argued, in essence, that no one knows how to govern a nation so we have to set up a system that allows for experimentation. Try this. Try that. Check the results. Repeat. That is the very heart of science.

The freedom of speech has been one of the driving forces behind moral progress through science and reason because it enables the search for truth.

“There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry,” J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote in 1949. “The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors.”

Reflecting on the history of science and extrapolating to wider spheres, he noted:

“Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.”

As Erich Fromm says, the powerless man’s only weapon is the truth. No matter who is in power, the best road to truth is to allow your critics to speak and try to refute what they say (or adjust your views if they are correct). Even if everyone recognizes this, and we are united by a concern for attaining as much of the truth as possible, it will not be like a debating society. But history shows that it is the best we can do.

In an age marred by fake news, junk science, and social and political polarization, this course teaches learners to make an argument for a return to critical thought.

(The development of this course owes much to James R. Flynn, an intelligence researcher who gave his name to the Flynn Effect. He is Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.)

Polyhistoria classes emphasize critical thinking, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. We believe that students learn history best by doing what professional historians do.

(Read more about our approach to history.)

Our approach to academics helps learners view traditional disciplines in unconventional ways. With immersive classes that cross disciplines, learners stretch themselves both within and beyond conventional academic pathways, while small classes encourage close collaboration between learners and instructors. Today, Polyhistoria is the only comprehensive online learning platform teaching in-depth, cutting-edge social science scholarship to teenagers.

(Read more about our teaching philosophy.)

Learning is not a spectator sport. Interaction and intellectual exchanges involving all students and the instructor enrich learning for all. Studying history involves an accumulation of knowledge about the past. But it also requires that we communicate that knowledge to others. You must be ready to share your views in class. A worthwhile course depends upon active participation by all students in class discussions.

The goal here is to advance an intelligent conversation from which we all learn. The most obvious way to do that is to say smart things and say them clearly. But that is not the only meaningful way to participate. Asking a question, connecting something already on the table to another thing, clarifying something that someone else has said, and offering evidence from the text under discussion are also all valuable. Bonus points are awarded for contributions that draw on what others have said. Other things to keep in mind: aim for clarity, keep in mind the value of an amicable classroom environment, and try not to monopolize the conversation.

1) Students’ cameras and microphones must be turned on during the class.
2) This class requires the continuous use of logical thinking & hypothetical reasoning skills to critically and creatively analyze the topics covered in the class. These cognitive functions are generally not sufficiently developed until a student is 13+ years old. Students must have the ability to think critically and logically to analyze the topics covered in the class.

Assignments will be posted on the classroom wall each week for students and may include reading, researching, and watching select videos. It will also include participation in threaded discussions.

1 hour per week in class, and an estimated 0 – 1 hour per week outside of class.

Meets once a week for 8 weeks
4 – 9 learners, ages 13-18