Last year an old friend of mine gave me a book for my birthday. Not an unusual occurrence; but this relatively short and conversational volume has kept bouncing around in my mind over the last few months. It was written by an American academic named Zena Hitz and is called Lost In Thought: The Hidden Pleasures Of An Intellectual Life. It is an endearingly enthusiastic and unashamedly personal paean to “the life of the mind”, i.e. wide and deep reading, careful thought and contemplation, serious conversation, and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.
The gift was well chosen. This was partly because, although the friend in question is not quite on the same page as me politically or philosophically, we are united in our belief in the value of open discussion and friendly disagreement. But in addition, the book caused me to partially reconsider my position on a topic which hardly ever seems to leave the headlines nowadays: the meaning and significance of free speech.
Last November saw the announcement of the University of Austin – a planned new private university, based in Texas. Its founders, including high-profile names such as Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, intend it to be an oasis of free inquiry and open debate amid a desert of censoriousness, groupthink and political dogmatism.
I’m instinctively sympathetic to such a project. Only the most obtuse or dishonest of observers would deny that recent years have seen a clear narrowing of the limits of acceptable opinion in many areas of public life. You can call this cancel culture if you like; it doesn’t really matter. What is important is not the name we give to the phenomenon, but the phenomenon itself, and so I can quite understand someone wanting to pursue their discipline in an institution where they can be confident of minimal ideological interference with their research, teaching or public statements.