Two hundred forty-six years ago today, Hampden-Sydney College held its first classes. Founded on the eve of the American Revolution “to form good men and good citizens” who would be the leaders of the new Republic, the College and its mission remain as important and relevant today as they were on November 10, 1775. This College has thrived for nearly two and a half centuries, in part, because of our commitment to freedom of expression and civil discourse.
The constitution of the Union-Philanthropic Literary Society, our College’s debating society—the second oldest in the United States—states that “freedom of discussion … was bought with precious blood.” We value freedom of expression not only because it is a central tenet of our Republic, one that our Founders fought and died for, but also because freedom of expression and open discussion make Hampden-Sydney a better and more vital college and our students better men and citizens.
Teaching students how, not what, to think has been our College’s North Star since 1775. Indoctrination, cancel culture, self-censoring, or anything that limits the widest possible intellectual exploration has no place on our campus, or any college or university campus. Faculty members, like all of us, have personal views on a host of topics and they may share those views with students in classroom discussions. But promulgating personal views or limiting the ability of others to challenge those views or to express their own views are unacceptable breaches of academic professionalism.
Actively sharing the widest possible range of views in classroom discussions, during office hours with faculty members, and across campus is essential to intellectual development and learning. Many know I am fond of the quotation attributed to E. M. Forster, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” This question underscores that the best way to learn is to hear ourselves speak, to hear both the strengths and the weaknesses of our arguments, and to have others share their feedback—positive and negative—and to address factual errors and flawed logic. Every discussion that occurs on our campus should be an opportunity for learning.
At Hampden-Sydney, we equally prize civil discourse, knowing that civility and collegiality contribute to the character and competence of our graduates. One of the most important goals of our educational program is to encourage greater engagement with, understanding of, and empathy for people whose ideas and perspectives are different from our own. This is why our graduates are well prepared to serve and lead in a diverse and complex world. To that end, we strive—just as every educational institution should—to be an environment that promotes and encourages the thoughtful and respectful exchange of ideas.
Freedom of expression is essential to the vitality of any college, university, nation, and society, and a commitment to civil discourse is especially important today. College is an ideal time and place to develop the skills of open, effective communication and civil discourse so these skills become a way of life. Hampden-Sydney’s history offers our campus community many remarkable exemplars. Our founding trustees James Madison and Patrick Henry passionately disagreed about the merits of the Constitution, but when his side lost and Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution, Henry was magnanimous. More recently, Professor Simms and the late Professor Heinemann were likely to find themselves on the opposite sides of many contemporary policy issues, and yet they shared an especially close friendship.
A fellow educator has recently noted that, “So much is broken in America. But higher education might be the most fractured institution of all.” Higher education is undoubtedly at an important juncture, but not all is broken. Colleges like Hampden-Sydney remain a cornerstone of our Republic because robust debate and civil discourse are allowed to flourish here.
President, Hampden-Sydney College