George Will on How a "Magnificent Legacy Can Be Squandered"

September 25, 2023 4 min read

Ethan Hicks, ‘26
Princetonians for Free Speech Original Content

George F. Will, the legendary Washington Post columnist, delivered a lecture on September 13 that nearly filled Friend 101 to its 250-person capacity with a diverse audience of students, faculty, and community members. His most trenchant message was that “the magnificent legacy” of the great research universities can “be squandered in a generation, destroyed from within, not by outside forces.”

The event was co-sponsored by Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS) and the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

Myles McKnight ’23, now working as a research assistant for Professor Robert P. George and serving as Programs Associate for Princetonians for Free Speech, began the event by introducing Dr. Allen Guelzo, Director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship at the James Madison Program. He in turn introduced Mr. Will to the audience after opening with a fictional letter addressed to Galileo Galilei criticizing him for uprooting the sixteenth-century understanding by publishing his astronomical observations. The fictional letter warned that “an open marketplace of ideas” could destroy “the fragile peace of our Church and universities.”

“I am, of course, making this up,” Guelzo added, “although given what actually happened to Galileo Galilei, it is uncomfortably close to it. What is even more uncomfortable is how easily, with the substitution of a few nouns, this could be the sort of statement we might hear from some 21st-century university communities, too.”

Guelzo introduced Dr. Will as a good friend who had earned his PhD from Princeton in 1968, began his writing career with the National Review in 1972, and began a Washington Post column in 1974, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977.

Will began his talk on how the legacy of the nation’s great universities can be destroyed from within with a story about the 1972 Senate race between Jim Buckley and Pat Moynihan. As soon as Buckley began calling Moynihan “Professor Moynihan,” Moynihan commented “the mudslinging has begun.” Will explained how the story connected to him: “In conformity to the rules of ruthless full disclosure, and in the spirit of today’s confessional culture, I herewith acknowledge a dark secret: I once was a college professor.”

“Great research universities are the finest ornaments of our western civilization,” Will told the audience. However, while “Washington was, for awhile, enamored of academic luminaries . . . academia has squandered its prestige by seeming to adopt an adversarial stance toward American society. And toward this society’s traditional values, including those affirmed by the First Amendment—which is first in the Bill of Rights for a reason.”

He added: “Everything, from the pursuit of truth to the pursuit of happiness, depends on the freedom of speech and inquiry, especially on campuses. It is especially necessary for those who espouse ideas that challenge majority orthodoxies that, when unchallenged, become lazy and stale. And bullying.”

He said that two main ideas would drive his talk. “My first hypothesis is that the very idea of an open society is being rejected by people who think that such a society is a naïve—indeed, a perverse– aspiration… My second hypothesis is that hostility to an open society appeals to people—particularly but not exclusively young people—who are haunted by an exaggerated sense of the harms from which they think they need protection.”

Will said that although free speech is necessary for the spread of important ideas, some justify its censorship through crisis. Such was the case when Woodrow Wilson censored speech during World War I and again by Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare. Will said that similar justifications are made for the censorship of speech today using “crises” such as bank runs and “systemic racism.” Will made the argument that people who believe society must be shaped through politics will permit censorship to its most extreme degree.

This brought Will to his second point. “Such thinking is incompatible with the principle of an open society… For people who think like this, the problem today is not the danger TO free speech, it is the danger FROM free speech.” Will argued that such restrictions of free speech are in violation of “natural law.”

Will continued his speech by explaining how universities apply these hypotheses to restrict free speech through promoting orthodoxy and requiring faculty to submit DEI affirmations. “When an institution takes a political stance,” Will said “it necessarily excommunicates those on campus who disagree.” These restrictions of free speech are a major reason academia has lost its prestige and influence within the country, according to Will.

Will concluded his speech with a call to action: “So, it is altogether fitting and proper that, propelled by Princetonians for Free Speech, this university can spearhead a nationwide rebirth of freedom—freedom of speech, the freedom that matters most, because all others depend on it.”

After concluding his prepared remarks, Will opened the floor to questions. When asked about his thoughts on artificial intelligence, Will said that he instructed his assistant to ask an artificial intelligence chat bot to generate a baseball column written by George Will. “It was intelligent. It was informative,” Will said. “But it wasn’t Will. No one who knows me and my writing would mistake that for me… I’m not worried.”

Another member of the audience asked how Will makes sense of speech censorship from both the left and right sides of the political spectrum. “The temptation is bipartisan,” he explained. Will compared the modern criticism of public-school curricula to the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. He said that fighting over the curriculums of public schools has been an issue throughout history and will continue long into the future. “It’s as American as frozen apple pie with processed cheese.”

Ethan Hicks, a PFS Writing Fellow, is a sophomore at Princeton from Perry, OH studying economics.

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