George Leef writes for the Martin Center about intellectual pursuits in American higher education.

Americans used to relish good debates. The debates between Senator Stephen Douglas and his challenger Abraham Lincoln in 1858 were transcribed and widely read. Even though Lincoln lost the election, the quality of his arguments impressed so many people that he became the Republican Party’s nominee for president just two years later.

College campuses are a natural venue for debates over the full range of political, economic, and philosophical issues that face us. Colleges have (or at least should have) a commitment to inquiry and the free exchange of ideas. And seeing how adults who have prepared for the intellectual combat of debate handle themselves is an important aspect of the preparation for citizenship that’s part of higher education’s mission.

Unfortunately, debate has largely disappeared on most campuses. That is the finding of political science professor George La Noue in his book Silenced Stages: The Loss of Academic Freedom and Campus Policy Debates. Based on his study of 97 colleges and 28 law schools during the 2014-2015 academic year, La Noue concludes, “For most students in American higher education, the opportunity to hear on-campus debates about important public policy issues does not exist.”

It isn’t the case that policy debates have completely disappeared. Sometimes colleges host debates over environmental and health issues, but such crucial matters as gun control, affirmative action, free speech, sexual assault, international trade, abortion, and government finance were almost never debated on campus during that period. La Noue is interested in the reasons for the decline of debate.