Another skirmish in the culture war broke out Aug. 24 with the publication of the University of Chicago’s welcome letter to the class of 2020.
The administration’s explicit condemnation of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” in the letter has sparked the most controversy. While these are important, albeit amorphous, concepts that must be discussed, the heart of the letter lies elsewhere.
The letter was fundamentally an attempt to communicate to incoming students that during their four years they will be exposed to ideas—in books, in class, and in discussions with professors and friends—that will dislodge some of their foundational beliefs. This process of subjecting all prevailing beliefs to criticism and argument may “even cause discomfort.” But this is the purpose of the university, the administration claims.
Perhaps the administration did it clumsily, but I commend it for sending this letter to the incoming class. The underlying concern that motivated the administration to write it is real: students are unwilling to earnestly engage with ideas that may challenge their deeply held beliefs. This is a cause for alarm.
Examples abound. Students at Wesleyan University have defunded a school newspaper in outrage over an op-ed that questioned some elements of the Black Lives Matter movement. Nicholas and Erika Christakis stepped down from their positions as faculty-in-residence at Yale’s Silliman College for sending an email to their students that presented an alternative intellectual lens through which to view Halloween costumes. Jason Riley, a prominent speaker on race, was disinvited from Virginia Tech. Christina Lagarde withdrew from her planned commencement address at Smith over raucous protests, as did Condoleezza Rice from Rutgers University. An alarming number of students are unwilling to hear and consider different views, even from their friends and classmates.
Rather than listen to those who disagree with them, then scrutinize their views and push toward the truth, these students, and sometimes professors, seek to silence dissent.
Students and administrators at Boston College have at times demonstrated willingness to, like the University of Chicago, stand athwart this groundswell in universities across the country. During my freshman year, BC brought Ryan Anderson from the Heritage Foundation to deliver “A Case Against Gay Marriage.” Even though I support gay marriage, I decided to attend. I recall being quite impressed with students who leveled with Anderson, prodding his argument for holes. I recall being quite unimpressed with the few who rolled their eyes and guffawed at his every remark—those who, so militantly sure of their beliefs, could hardly mask their vitriol.
The point is not that I agree with Anderson, the thoughts expressed by the speakers disinvited from campus, the teachers dismissed from their posts, or the students so often afraid to express their views. I usually do not.
The point is that contending with them in public and private discourse—rather than getting them fired, launching ad hominem attacks, getting their invitation to speak rescinded, or subjecting them to public derision—is the only way to get closer to the truth. Prior to attending “A Case Against Gay Marriage,” my support for gay marriage was an unexamined belief—dogma I accepted from the loudest voices around me. Now, I still support gay marriage, but Anderson’s talk prompted me to find out why for myself. This investigation has been going on for three years now, and it has expanded far beyond the arguments put forward by Anderson. In the process, my zeal has tempered, and I’ve adopted far greater intellectual humility in regard to my position on the issue. I’ve realized that I may be wrong.
Intellectual humility, curiosity, and imagination are required to seek out and fully understand other views. The dearth of these qualities is behind much of the strife on college campuses and the unrest across the country.
It is easy to behold the racism and xenophobia expressed by Donald Trump and his supporters and look no further, but it is much harder to actually engage with them and understand the cultural and social anxieties that often drive his support. It is easy to dismiss Plato or other thinkers and writers in the Western canon as dead old white guys with nothing to offer, but harder to grapple with their thought and discover for yourself what is true and what is not. It is easy to dismiss BLM as reckless protestors, but harder to grapple with their pain and the system that is at least partially to blame. It is easy to think that we should require state-issued IDs to vote, but harder to consider who it would disenfranchise, or if widespread voter fraud even exists.
College is a place where people with a multiplicity of experiences, backgrounds, beliefs, and opinions come to live, learn, and grow together for four years. With empathy, humility, and respect we should argue, disagree, and yes, feel uncomfortable, as we examine our own inherited beliefs. So read books and publications that present different viewpoints. Seek out students and professors who see the world differently than you. Try to understand why they think what they do.
At the very least, you will emerge with a better understanding of the reasons why you believe what you believe—something that is critical for an examined life. And who knows? You may actually change your mind.
Featured Image by Kelsey McGee / Heights Editor