The humanities are the missing factor in tackling America’s free speech problem

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Alain-Philippe Durand is dean of the University of Arizona College of Humanities. Bennett Dorrance is a graduate of the University of Arizona College of Humanities and an Arizona-based real estate developer who serves on the board of directors for Campbell Soup Co.

Alain-Philippe Durand

Permission granted by Amy Haskell


On the pages of both higher ed and mainstream publications, the topic du jour is free speech. Most often, the argument is detailed as one that exists between the political left and right. The only common ground is where debates often occur — on college campuses.

We agree that virtually every major issue has become polarized to partisan extremes. As the dividing lines between us become thicker than ever, the line between free speech and censorship becomes even more razor thin.

But what if we’ve lost sight of what’s needed to address the problem? What if the remedy is not further discussion of how our differences have pulled society apart but, instead, how our society might be saved by our differences? It’s not a pipe dream — we think the power of the humanities can save our society by teaching us how to disagree better.

Bennett Dorrance

Permission granted by DMB Associates


An interesting correlation exists between the decrease in the study of the humanities and the increase of political polarization and vitriolic language. Further, recent research from UNSW Sydney, in Australia, shows that Western college students are becoming less emotionally intelligent, meaning that it has become more difficult to empathize with one another.

The same study examined emotional intelligence in light of a rapid rise in social media usage coupled with a decrease in face-to-face social interactions, which seems to also create the perfect conditions for a free speech storm to brew.

But just as every storm passes, we can weather this one, too.

In our respective roles as university dean and business leader, we see the power of advancing society through a humanities lens: through the careful reflection and study of cultures, languages, literatures, histories and traditions of the world in which students can develop the empathy, ethics and critical reflection required to navigate today’s increasingly complicated world.

While undergraduate study of the humanities has declined overall, the number of students with humanities majors has steadily grown by 10% over the last five years at the University of Arizona College of Humanities. We know, as do our students and alumni, that an education grounded in the humanities can effectively prepare students to become engaged and empathetic global citizens, to navigate complex workplaces, and to learn that disagreement is healthy and essential to advancing critical thinking in any career path.

In fact, we believe this so wholeheartedly at the University of Arizona that we are weaving those core tenets into our orientation programming for all new students starting this fall.

It’s also the model we’ll spotlight in the University of Arizona’s Fearless Inquiries project — a long-term, flagship effort of our College of Humanities specifically aimed at catalyzing a national culture that prizes open discussion, independent judgment and the questioning of stubborn assumptions. Our first discussion in the series, tomorrow in Washington, D.C., will center on free speech on campus and explore how the humanities teach us to use our differences, to thoughtfully move a conversation forward and to create new insights, connections and solutions. 

We’re engaging on this highly charged topic because the humanities are typically absent from these discussions — unlike political science, law and journalism. A humanities-based framework, however, goes beyond respecting disagreements and bridging divides. It offers us the ability to contextualize differing ideas and opinions as we consider contrasting viewpoints and approach topics with openness, tolerance and curiosity.

The humanities can offer a different way forward for today’s students, and for the whole of society. But if we wish to see an end to America’s free speech problems, we need to start seeing disagreement differently: not as something that sets the debate’s tone, but instead — through openness — serves as the antidote to it.

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