Professor Noël Valis on Free Speech and “Thinking for Yourself”

Earlier this Fall, Professor Noël Valis was among a number of professors at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton to sign a letter (republished by The Beacon here) urging students to “Think for yourself.” In the following interview, lightly edited for clarity, Prof. Valis discusses the need for the letter and why she signed it. 

By: Noah Daponte-Smith

Noah: How did you coordinate this? You have professors across many different fields, across three different universities, some not even in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences but in the Law school — how did this all come together? 

Prof. Valis: This was not me – this was [Princeton Professor] Robbie George. He’s really the spearhead of all this. He’s the one — and I assume he did this with the other people — he wrote to us; he invited us to sign the letter. I believe he wrote the original writer, and I believe he had some feedback. By the time that he contacted me, the letter was basically already written. But I agree with absolutely everything he said in it. It was beautifully crafted, and he wrote to only a small number, and really almost everybody he did write to said yes. Once I read the letter I said “Yes, yes, of course.”

Noah: Do you think that students — the main point of the letter was to tell students to think for themselves. Do you think that students are actually able to do that, given the current climate, or would this require a real leap of faith that most students won’t be able to take? It seems that there’s just so much pointing against “thinking for yourself” that it’s just too hard to do.

Prof. Valis: That’s a really tough question. I have some fear of that myself, but I also have a great deal of optimism of students, and I think they need some guidance. Some students might not need any guidance at all — they’re perfectly fine and will get the most out of their experience without that. But many students will not be able to do that, at least not the degree that we’d like to see them do it. I think this is a nice first step, and I hope the students take it to heart. But then the next thing is — how do we do this? At the very least, saying this to the students — which is a way of saying “Keep your mind open” — does something important. When I was a young person, I had some ideas very firmly in my head that I was absolutely sure explained how the world worked. But I began to realize that I hadn’t really tested them out. So that’s my hope, that these students will not shut themselves off to other possibilities, other ways of thinking about the world. They are going to need some guidance from faculty. I think, by and large, most of the faculty at Yale aren’t there to give them pre-digested views. But let’s face it — at an awful lot of institutions, they are. There is a tendency for this to happen. How can we make sure the students understand the difference? I don’t know, at this point.


Noah: When I came here as a freshman, I probably thought I was able to think for myself just fine. But I probably was not, in fact, able to do that. So where is the boundary drawn, at which the student has enough of their own faculties to able to think for themselves, and it’s not just a futile exercise? Does being able to think for yourself require certain abilities to be learned in the first place?

Prof. Valis: I think by the time that one gets to a place like Yale, you’d be introduced to certain principles and questions to which there are no facile answers — and there are no answers at all, ultimately. But I’m just not so sure to what degree they have gotten that. I do think that there’s a certain kind of experience with life — this is a cliché, but I have to say it — that you’re not going to get in four years at any university. It’s the hard knocks, the hitting your head against hard reality, that you won’t get until you’re out there in the real world. Now, it’s not that we should be having you hitting your head against the wall while you’re at Yale, but it seems to me that so many institutions now are in such a bubble. They’re so isolated from the real world, from the concerns of ordinary people in the society around them. Wouldn’t this be at least one way to get them to think beyond the academic bubble? You can get students to understand that some of the great questions out there in the universe are not just theoretical, but have an impact on people outside the academic bubble.

One often gets the sense that so many faculty — and there are many wonderful faculty here, don’t get me wrong — but nonetheless, when you talk to people outside their expertise, outside their fields and disciplines, one gets the impression that they have completely lost contact with the real world. There seems to be a disconnect, and almost a tendency to look down on people who aren’t part of their own world. This is the worst of elitism, of course, and you can find it at almost any academic institution — I’m not trying to single out Yale. And again, there are plenty of people here who don’t fall into that category at all. But there are people in these institutions that do have this disdain for anything that seems not academic, for ordinary people.


Noah: Perhaps a more obvious question — why did you sign the letter?

Prof. Valis: First of all, because I think students should think for themselves. But also because I believe in free speech. This is about free speech as well, and I think it reflects a growing concern on the part of a large amount of people, not every one of whom is vocal about it, concerning the fragility of free speech on campus and elsewhere. One of the things that made me most concerned — and I’ve always been a proponent of free speech, even of the ugliest speech, because that is the essence of free speech — but where I really began to be personally concerned was in the fall of 2015, with the Christakis episode, and connected to that was what happened with the symposium on free speech that the Buckley Program organized. Being the person who moderated and introduced the panel at which Greg Lukianoff spoke, this really hit home to me, how fragile it is. To hear people yelling and screaming outside the doorway in such an uncivilized way really disturbed me. And things have really gotten worse on campuses across this country. I’d like to see Yale take a strong stand on free speech. It is spoken, we can hear it from the top all the way down, but I’d really like to see it be the case.


Noah: When I was reading this, it felt like a re-articulation of the Woodward Report — “think the unthinkable, mention the unmentionable.”

Prof. Valis: Exactly. But in a reasoned and civil manner. And what I’d like to see is some civil discourse brought back. You can’t think for yourself if you don’t have civil discourse. You can have strong arguments, you can take strong positions, but it has to be civil. It can’t be what’s happening in Berkeley now — we cannot allow our campuses to deteriorate.


Noah: What is your prognosis for the future of campus free speech? 

Prof. Valis: In the short term, I don’t think it looks very good in a lot of places. I suspect most people agree with this statement, but they won’t sign it — and that to me is disturbing in itself, that people won’t be willing to put their money where their mouth is. I think most people do believe this, but we are going to have to stand up and say “this must not happen on our campuses.” We have to allow people who have unpopular ideas to speak freely; and for students who don’t agree with the prevailing opinion on campus, to be free to say that they don’t agree, and to argue and explain their position. I think you shut down debate when you say “I do not agree with you, and therefore you must be xyz.” That is really a low level of discourse, where when you don’t agree with someone you are considered to be a bad person, or that you must agree with some extreme.

Noah Daponte-Smith is a senior in Berkeley College and the Vice-President of the Buckley Program.