In an era before the internet, or even accessible public libraries, our nation’s founders shared pamphlets and debates through the slow-moving postal system.
One such exchange commenced in September 1820 when an enthusiastic young man sent an unsolicited package to former President Thomas Jefferson. The Sage of Monticello gave the political treatise a “cursorily” read and penned a polite response inviting the lad to reconsider his views. Jefferson took issue with the book’s reverence for judicial appointees and suggested the young man had overlooked the true source of sovereignty within the constitutional republic. Jefferson wrote, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves.”
Two centuries later, “We the People” find ourselves infected with a blight of polarizing messaging, “fake news” and ugly socio-political agendas that plead for top-down governance. Even the would-be centers of learning have proven no more immune to the disease. The crisis is enough to cause some to question whether the American experiment can continue with its premise intact. Fortunately, Jefferson also provided the solution: “if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their controul [sic] with a wholsome [sic] discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”
Last summer, Bakersfield College President Sonya Christian called on a coalition of humanities faculty to launch a new initiative devoted to critical thinking and intellectual diversity. The Bakersfield College Liberty Institute organized to promote free and open discourse about America’s founding virtues: meritocracy, individual agency, civic virtue, liberty of conscience and free markets. Rather than follow the popular trend that such ideas are outdated or even “racist,” the Liberty Institute seeks to host speakers, book clubs, conferences and more to ensure diversity of thought and genuine critical thinking.
In its inaugural year, the Liberty Institute partnered with BC’s student government to host two nationally renowned speakers. In October 2018, former Clark University professor of ethics Christina Sommers addressed the campus. She is the author of "Who Stole Feminism" and "The War on Boys" and had recently been named as one of the notorious members of “the Intellectual Dark Web,” so called for their bucking of group think in the academe.
Then former Vanderbilt professor of law Carol Swain visited campus in February. Her revolutionary book "Black Faces, Black Interests" smashed the fallacy of same-race representation and has been twice cited by the United States Supreme Court. Her second book, "The New White Nationalism," prophetically anticipated far-right imitation of far-left race ideology to create what we now recognize as “the alt-right.”
As we begin the 2019-20 academic year, the Liberty Institute is eager to host our third lecture at 6 p.m. Sept. 12 in the Levan Center. “A Tale of Two Protests: Free Speech and the Intellectual Origins of Campus Censorship” will begin with the college’s recent reaction to political protest slogans as a launchpad for a larger discussion of the academic biases that have shaped the humanities and broader academe over the past few decades. This walk through intellectual history will come full circle to explain how censorship has gained currency among academics who duplicitously call for diversity and inclusion while routinely excluding opposing thought. As always, the event is free and open to the public, with free parking.
The Liberty Institute exists as a center for free and open discourse. We eagerly seek community partnerships and potential benefactors to help support future events that foster genuine intellectual diversity and discussion. Please join us.
Matthew Garrett is a professor of history at Bakersfield College and the faculty director of the Liberty Institute.