Dalai Lama’s visit to the U raises big questions

There was something historic about the recent visit of the Dalai Lama to the University. But at the same time his visit raises questions that have more to do with our University than with him. The interesting twist was that he, representing a world religion, was given such a warm reception from such a secular campus.

His visit also gave occasion for this public university to sponsor, in an unprecedented way, a major conference on Buddhist thought called “Traditional Tibetan Medicine: Revealing the Art of the Medicine Buddha.” These events surrounding the Dalai Lama are remarkable because historically, an effort has been made to shun rather than explore religious thought within the University.

The central question, however, is not whether he (or Buddhist thought) should be allowed in this institution. It is a tribute to the freedom found in this country that he spoke publicly, especially since he does not enjoy that right in his homeland. However, all these events raise the question of why this freedom is not extended to all equally and why certain religious points of view are singled out for censorship.

The Dalai Lama is a thoughtful man and has a lot to say. He gave a major speech and in turn was given a major welcome from the entire University. During this occasion, no one raised any questions regarding a possible violation of the establishment clause in the Constitution. This clause, a part of the First Amendment, prohibits the government from establishing a state religion. Indeed, with the Dalai Lama’s visit there was no such threat.

Unfortunately, such magnanimous treatment on the University’s part does not always prevail regarding the expression of religious or philosophical perspectives. For instance, thoughtful students who frequently want to question the theoretical premises of their biology instruction are not given an opportunity. Likewise, writing a psychology paper incorporating religious presuppositions about human nature is usually not well received.

Many students cultivate a servile and silent demeanor at school simply because the focus of power rests not with them but with the person dispensing the grade. The good news is the Dalai Lama has come to a public institution in a country where he is free to speak his mind. The other good news is he is not the only one meant to enjoy that right.

Freedom of speech, which includes the right to express your religious opinion, is part of a whole series of rights found in the Bill of Rights. These rights were written primarily to protect the interests of those who hold minority opinions. In essence, they guard all who exercise these freedoms from governmental interference. But for these rights to thrive at a university or any school, they must be practiced and they must be taught.

Unless these rights are taught in our schools, we cannot expect our citizens to know anything about them. They do not just flow naturally from human nature. It is not natural, for instance, for humans (especially governments) to exercise restraint and let others voice their opinions. History confirms that observation. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need a constitution to guarantee the right to free speech. It is good this and other rights exist in the Constitution. But to be effective, they must also be promoted, explained, interpreted and taught. What better place than in our schools?

At some point in their lives, citizens need to learn how to operate responsibly within a free system. You don’t just automatically become an effective citizen. Students must be fully informed concerning these rights.

But from a pedagogical perspective, information alone is not enough. If it is important these freedoms be taught, then they must also be practiced. A strong case exists that for students to learn, they must see those rights in action and experience them firsthand. This begins by the institution granting its students these rights.

There are many ways to practice and model freedom of speech. For instance, teachers would not only express their points of view but they would incorporate other views as well in their teaching. Teachers would continue to be free to teach from a certain position, but they would also show how that position holds up in the face of opposing viewpoints. Students would be encouraged to add to those arguments, both pro and con. They would then be free to evaluate the arguments, and they would also be free to dissent.

But to insist a certain point of view is sacrosanct because it is favored by the teacher or by most in the profession is at best short-sighted. As a study of intellectual and scientific history shows, the acceptability of ideas within a profession changes throughout time. Students need to learn and respect those views but not be limited to them.

In the case of public schools, we have even another reason to practice freedom of speech. That is the constitutional argument. Since public schools are an extension of the government, then it legally follows that those institutions cannot restrict citizens’ rights to free speech, not even those of students.

The idea that public school students do not forfeit their rights “at the schoolhouse gate” is backed up by many Supreme Court cases. Many cases have guaranteed students the right to express their opinions, even religious opinions. It is unfortunate that many of us, if not most, are ignorant of these cases. It is even more unfortunate that many school boards and administrators who know about these cases actively and illegally work against their enforcement. Nevertheless, the law of the land guarantees students their rights.

Why, then, is there a constant resistance and even fear concerning these student rights? There are many reasons. Some have to do with the idea of maintaining order. It is thought that freedom of speech is, by its very nature, contrary to maintaining school order. But is this always true?

The remedy is for educators to not only allow opportunity for varied viewpoints but to also teach how these views can be expressed in an orderly manner. Debates have rules. Effective writing follows rules of evidence and argumentation. Academic freedom limits one to the topic at hand, and so on. If educators make room for student expression and regulate it in a fair fashion, order will be maintained.

There is still a greater reason freedom does not exist within educational institutions: the truncated nature of modern, secular education. If we allow students to freely express their opinions or even ask the questions that are on their minds, then we will have to deal with the “big” questions.

Given the freedom to do so, students will not only wonder about the mechanics of biology, but they will also want to know why life exists and where it comes from. They will not be content with viewing humans in just a deterministic manner but will want to fully explore the questions of human nature. Rather than just accepting science as being the supreme and universal method for determining knowledge, they will want to know about its limitations and how it fits with other areas, such as ethics.

The list of questions goes on and on. It is obvious the great majority of educators have chosen to ignore these questions. It does not, however, give them justification to prevent their students from raising these concerns.

At one time, all of knowledge centered around two fields: philosophy and theology. Slowly these fields have been marginalized or eliminated altogether from the public discourse, including the discourse found in public education. Yet the greatest challenges we face as humans still are philosophical, ethical and, yes, even theological. In a way, the Dalai Lama bears witness to that. I might not agree with everything for which the Dalai Lama stands, but I am thankful he has a right to speak and raise big questions.

I lament, however, the fact that these rights are extended – almost giddily – to a world-renowned celebrity but are denied daily to ill-equipped yet sincere youths across this nation, especially those who are struggling with the
ramifications of their faith.