It is a mistake to say that diversity and free expression cannot coexist. And yet, this academic year, on campus after campus, that has been the choice served up: You are either for diversity, equity and inclusion in our communities, or you are for free expression. The strength of our communities depends upon a commitment to upholding both, perhaps especially when that is hardest to do so.
The American experiment is, at its highest form, about diversity and free expression coexisting. That coexistence has not been easy, nor has it been all that successful, especially for those who have less power. And free expression has been interpreted in ways that have tended to support those in authority, rather than all people equitably. These critiques of the American experiment are all grounded in historical truth.
That the American experiment has not yet been entirely successful, nor fairly carried out (think Indian removal, slavery, Jim Crow, internment, unequal rates of incarceration into the 21st century and more), does not mean that the principles are wrong.
One purpose of education is to bring young people into contact with those of different backgrounds so they might learn from one another. It is an essential skill for today’s young people to be able to spend time with those who think and act differently than they do. It is an affirmative goal of education to make access available to all young people, not just the children of those who are already on top. For reasons that are both functional and moral, it is right to pursue diversity and, in turn, to commit to making our campuses equitable and inclusive — places where students can learn from those of different races, ethnicities and beliefs and do so with respect and genuine openness.
Free expression and its close cousin, the right to assemble peaceably, do not mean that anyone can say anything to anybody at any time. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution has been interpreted to permit certain restrictions of time, place and manner on speech. On our campuses, students and faculty need to act respectfully to one another to build community.
The idea of diversity and free expression opposing one another may serve some immediate political purposes, but it will not serve our society in the long run. Nor does it serve our current students well now or later in their lives. We should recommit ourselves to making our campuses, and society at large, stronger and more enduring than ever, in the spirit of American ideals at their finest, working in concert.
John Palfrey is Head of School at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. This column first appeared a couple weeks ago in the New York Times.