Free Thought: Is It a Virtue?

Liberal and conservative institutions alike have always enshrined free thought as a virtue. At Amherst, where diversity of thoughts and opinions is highly prized, imposing institutional restrictions on what could be said, expressed or believed ranks as one of our highest sins. But I’d like to take this “free thought” that we value so much and lay it across the table, bare and questioned. What exactly is “free thought,” how is it different from free speech and what is it good for anyway?

As is mostly the case with defining things, our good old friend Merriam Webster can offer a helping hand, defining free thought as “thought unrestrained by deference to authority, tradition or dogma.” Free speech, by comparison, is defined as “the right of people to publicly express their opinions without governmental interference or retaliation.” It’s also important to note that with laws against libel and incitement to mutiny or riot, your public expressions aren’t completely unrestrained. In this sense, “free” speech is not absolutely free.

Though free speech ensures that you won’t be hunted down for sharing your beliefs, it doesn’t ensure that your beliefs were formed without duress or coercion. Thus, any institution that proclaims a serious commitment to free thought can’t flood you with propaganda, punish you for not attending certain info-sessions or force you to declare a certain set of beliefs or opinions under oath. It must allow you to roam freely in your life as much as possible and, thus, interfere as little as possible in what or who you listen to and read or where you decide to go.

Amherst doesn’t merely guarantee free thought — it actively encourages it. It touts the benefits of free thought as if it were a virtue. What’s the point of this? Well, imagine you gave a child a box of Lego pieces without saying a word. The child may look puzzled with what you just gave. Nevertheless, he’ll begin to experiment and eventually get the hang of using Legos as a means of creative expression. In a different scenario, you give this child a box of Legos and tell the child that he could make whatever he wants out of the pieces you just gave him. The difference, I believe, is that in the former case the child is left before a pool of resources that he’ll use according to his wants and needs as time passes. He’ll eventually figure out that he has the freedom to use these pieces however he may desire. In the latter case, by comparison, your words actually push him to use the pieces as creatively and freely as his imagination allows.

To unpack the analogy, Amherst provides its students with a plethora of academic and personal resources. Yet, merely offering students resources doesn’t guarantee that the students will use them to foster unrestrained thought and creativity. The best way to guarantee that students maximize their academic experience is to openly announce that the students can, in fact, use the institution’s resources as creatively as possible, and that the students should do so. Free thought as a policy objective is synonymous with the license of creativity that you granted to the child after giving him a box of legos: it’s an explicit provision that you have resources that you aren’t forced to use in any specific way. Free thought, when it’s put on posters across Frost and actively encouraged by administrators, is Amherst’s way of saying, “Please, do what you will with our resources. Use them as creatively and courageously as you wish.”

It’s precisely this constant reminder that I find virtuous. I’m confident that if asked, all Amherst students would profess that they are free agents who have consciously chosen their thoughts and beliefs. We know free thought to be a right that everyone is entitled to. What’s truly valuable is not merely this freedom itself, but the assurance all around us that we are guaranteed this right — that we are not only free to think how we’d like, but that this freedom will never be questioned or retracted. To think freely, you must be reminded that you can.