In my seminar class at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, my students and I have been reading John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and thinking about its relevance in our world of hyper-critical speech and online insults. Readers of these posts know of my interest in Mill on economic choice as a means of developing decision-making skills. In this post, I turn to Mill’s views on speech. Here, too, Mill regarded speech as a means to ensuring human thriving: the freedom to hear and question one’s beliefs ensures we become full-fledged members of social groups. For Mill, discussion is a means to deep learning.
Mill believed that education was a means by which we come to fortify ourselves against bias, something he referred to in his 1867 speech as the inaugural rector of the University of St. Andrews. In On Liberty, Mill argues people correct falsely held beliefs using their experiences and discussion:
Rectifying … mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it.
Teachers (and colleges and universities), Mill said in his 1867 inaugural address, had a special obligation to teach from different perspectives:
If teaching, even on matters of scientific certainty, should aim quite as much at showing how the results are arrived at, as at teaching the results themselves, far more, then, should this be the case on subjects where there is the widest diversity of opinion among men of equal ability, and who have taken equal pains to arrive at the truth. This diversity should of itself be a warning to a conscientious teacher that he has no right to impose his opinion authoritatively upon a youthful mind. His teaching should not be in the spirit of dogmatism, but in that of enquiry.
For Mill, the social toll associated with lack of diversity and discussion—uniformity and dullness—is enormous. With education and exposure to diversity of thought, by contrast, individuals are more elevated and more social, he writes in On Liberty:
It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others.
I’m grateful the Jepson School offers its students plenty of opportunities to learn through discussion, and I was extremely pleased to see my students recently engage in a thoughtful discussion and debate about questions surrounding speech and speakers on college campuses today.