I spoke at the University of California, Berkeley, on Monday about the importance of free speech. Contrary to what you might predict, my audience was polite and the event ran smoothly.

This audience certainly knows about free speech; their campus is the home of the free speech movement of the 1960s and many were on campus during the antifa riots of the past few years. They’ve seen the good and the bad that comes along with First Amendment rights. Many students told me the heated political atmosphere on campus has made them grow intellectually and politically.

I was shocked, however, when I learned of my most controversial statement of the night: “America is the greatest country in the history of the world.”

Just the mere mention of American exceptionalism sent shudders through my audience. Like an earthquake reverberating through the auditorium, heads snapped, whispers began, and eventually during the question and answer portion, students confronted me about my supposedly misinformed patriotism.

I found this shocking.

Berkeley — a public institution, formed for the public good and funded by American tax dollars — has effectively brainwashed its students to believe that America is mediocre at best.

“But what about slavery?” they contested.

Nope. Historically speaking, most all countries had slavery at one time or another. That is a warranted critique of the past, but not of America in particular in the present.

“But how can you be for free speech and also say that universities should fly the American flag?” the student moderator, armed with several prepared gotcha questions, asked.

I made my best attempt to explain the concept and purpose of a nation state, which mostly fell on deaf ears. I mentioned that UC Berkeley is technically an extension of the U.S. government, being that it’s a public school, but few seemed to care. It dawned on me that they value their rights to free speech because it’s free speech that allows them to hate America and do so openly and publicly.

That the U.S. continues to fund UC Berkeley and other leftist, anti-American institutions of higher education alone shows America’s exceptionalism, particularly its commitment to allowing dissenting views.

Unlike third-world dictatorships, we don’t gas our own people (this obvious point also triggered my audience). Instead, we empower our citizens to participate in a democracy that successfully and peacefully transfers power between presidents every 4-8 years. Furthermore, in the United States, citizens are encouraged to use their voices politically and to engage in civic discourse, even when that means criticizing the government.

Immigrants, both legal and illegal, bend over backwards to try to make it to America. I’ve seen, firsthand, Cubans desperately swimming to shore from their handmade rafts to find freedom and a better life. We know thousands pour in at our southern border in hope of just a small chance to live the American dream. Yes, much of this is driven by our economic prosperity, but it’s also due to our incomparable freedoms.

I asked my audience why they don’t move to another country if America is so terrible. I did not get a response.

And so, while my event was not interrupted by antifa protesters or shouted down by angry dissenters, I left feeling like I encountered a similar attitude.

The students participated in civil discourse, yet overwhelmingly told me they don’t appreciate it. They like free speech as a means to an end, but don’t love free speech inherently.

Knowing about free speech and practicing tolerance to opposing viewpoints is important, don’t get me wrong. But understanding the rarity, beauty, and true value of free speech requires an appreciation for the bedrock of American culture that allows it to exist in the first place.

Embracing American exceptionalism isn’t a dismissal of American shortcomings, but a celebration of unprecedented freedom and generosity — freedom and generosity that UC Berkeley students experience on a daily basis, whether or not they choose to acknowledge or appreciate it.