Why I Invited Charles Murray to Speak at Notre Dame
Charles Murray will be speaking at Notre Dame on Tuesday [March 28]. In light of the violent protest at his Middlebury College lecture earlier this month, I’ve been asked by a few students and faculty colleagues (but, notably, not by any senior ND administrators) to rescind his invitation.
I will not.
I also have been asked why I invited him in the first place. That I am happy to explain.
Charles Murray is speaking at Notre Dame because I and another Political Science professor assigned his book Coming Apart in our classes. His visit is one of several outside lectures that are part of this semester’s Constitutional Studies offerings.
My class, “Constitutional Government & Public Policy,” addresses some of the most important and divisive issues in American politics: abortion, gay marriage, religious freedom, inequality, freedom of speech, death penalty, race and the meaning of constitutional equality, immigration, euthanasia, and pornography.
The class is designed to prompt students to think more deeply and thoughtfully about contemporary moral and political issues. I don’t assign a textbook or “neutral” readings that summarize the issues; I require students to read principled thinkers who advocate vigorously for their respective position. I want my conservative students to read smart, persuasive liberal thinkers, and I want my liberal students to read thoughtful conservatives. Educated citizens can give reasons for their beliefs and can defend intellectually the positions they hold. That requires that we understand and articulate the positions with which we disagree.
This week and next, the class is discussing inequality. Even the New York Times, which is certainly not sympathetic to Murray’s point of view, recognized that on this subject Murray makes an important argument that should be heard. And we are not reading just him. I have also assigned selections from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. Putnam leans left; Murray is a conservative libertarian. Putnam spoke at Notre Dame last year. So this year, I invited Murray.
“But Murray is controversial and will make students feel uncomfortable,” my faculty colleagues say. Don’t I know that he has been accused of being racist, anti-gay, and a white nationalist? I’m told that bringing him to campus is not fair to Notre Dame’s marginalized students.
I have no desire to inflict unwanted stress or anxiety on any member of the Notre Dame community, especially our minority students. I appreciate the concern for student wellbeing that motivates some of the opposition to Murray’s visit. But I believe what is most harmful to students—and, to speak candidly, most patronizing—is to “protect” our students from hearing arguments and ideas they supposedly cannot handle.
To study politics today requires handling controversial, difficult, and divisive topics. After discussing Princeton professor Peter Singer’s defense of abortion, one of my students told me she left class “deeply disturbed.” If you are genuinely pro-life, you probably should be disturbed by Singer’s arguments. But should I, therefore, not teach them?
The price of a real education is hearing powerful arguments that make us realize our opinions are based on untested assumptions. Only then, when we realize that we do not know as much as we think we know, can genuine learning occur.
I invited Dr. Murray to Notre Dame months ago; the reasons for his invitation still stand.
Given what happened at Middlebury, it would be cowardly to disinvite Murray now. Rescinding his invitation would communicate that violence works; that if you want to influence academia, sharpen your elbows, not your mind. It would tell those who engaged in violence—and those who might engage in or threaten violence—that universities will cower if you just appear intimidating. Rescinding Murray’s invitation would teach exactly the wrong lesson.
And it would teach it at exactly the wrong time.
Notre Dame is one of Charles Murray’s first post-Middlebury campus lectures. It makes our event a referendum on free speech and how universities handle controversial speakers. I didn’t intend for his visit to address these issues, but it now does. Given the trends of cancelled lectures, ever-increasing calls to disinvite speakers, and ideological bullying on college campuses, we must take a stand for civil discourse and reasoned engagement. We must show that universities can host respectful conversations among people who disagree. If we can’t accomplish that minimal academic exercise, the university has lost its purpose.
Notre Dame faculty critical of Murray have implored me to think about the larger context of what his visit means. I am. That is why I will not rescind his invitation.
As a professor and program director, my job is to do what we are supposed to do at universities: pursue the truth through reasoned dialogue and discussion. Whether you find Charles Murray’s scholarship persuasive or objectionable, his visit offers an opportunity to learn. That is why I invited him to speak at Notre Dame. After Middlebury, it’s all the more important that he do so.
Vincent Phillip Muñoz is an Associate Professor of Political Science and director of the Constitutional Studies minor at the University of Notre Dame.