Varying perspectives on "Uncomfortable Learning" at Williams College

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The Suzanne Venker disinvitation kerfuffle has prompted a fair amount of discussion at Williams College (and elsewhere) on how to foster more open discussion on college campuses.

On CNN.com, John McWhorter discusses the Venker disinvitation and the errors of those who seek to make colleges a "safe space" devoid of substantial disagreement on certain matters.

Are undergraduates opposing speakers like Venker simply whining, "I don't wanna hear that!"? Some, sure; there are also some who, I suspect, seek to show that they are enlightened and moral by "performing" a willfully uncooperative kind of indignation. However, it is hasty to apply that characterization to the entire body of students now adopting the "safe space" ideology, and it doesn't correspond to what most of them actually say. Quite a few of the students in question are more sophisticated than we are taught to think.

Students who indignantly refuse to hear what a speaker has to say may well be operating upon a basic and, in itself, reasonable proposition. They are assuming that the issue in question has been conclusively decided upon in a lengthy, bygone general discussion. Under that analysis, further dwelling upon the issue can only qualify, in any intellectual or moral sense, as abusive, as in denying basic human rights, devaluing categories of people and recreationally airing harmful stereotypes. . . .

[T]hose who refuse to hear any criticism of racial preferences, or assume that anyone who is a Republican is a suspicious character, or assume that any opinions rightward of Mother Jones about controversial and delicate issues such as sex, religion, race and social welfare qualify as conversational plutonium are not babies. They are underinformed - and a lot of that is universities' fault. . . .

Universities . . . have a responsibility to combat the idea that the campus must be a "safe space" from unpleasant ideas. However, a mere observation that the campus should foster free inquiry is ineffective in a climate where students have all reason to suppose that on the sensitive issues most of interest, there is nothing to inquire about.

Rather, the university should indeed be a safe space from ideas reasonable people can consider amply decided upon. However, the set of these ideas is not as large as the modern undergraduate has often been led to believe, and professors should commit themselves to not pretending otherwise. We must firmly maintain discussion from both sides about urgent issues of our moment, and speak out clearly and firmly against all misimpressions of such discussions as aimless hate-mongering.

Williams College President Adam Falk echoes some of these thoughts in urging students to disagree in a more constructive manner than attacking each other on social media or closing their minds to alternative views.

Williams has a long history of inviting controversial speakers to campus and no history of uninviting them, and this is a point of absolute principle. Ours is an institution of higher learning; such learning cannot occur without broad and enthusiastic exposure to a wide range of ideas and perspectives. And certainly the invitation of a speaker to campus isn't in and of itself an endorsement - by the College or by individuals who invite a speaker - of that person's views. Whatever our own views may be, we should be active in bringing to campus speakers whose opinions are different from our own.

And when we do, we must work together to create a forum in which those views can be expressed and can be examined in constructive, respectful ways that lead to shared learning. At the end of that forum we don't have to agree any more than we did at the beginning, but it will hardly hurt any of us to engage with difference productively.

That didn't happen with the Suzanne Venker event, and, indeed, the role that social media played in the episode undermined the very possibility of healthy dialogue.

Williams alum Jack Noelke suggests that participants in heated debates should follow the "Munger Rule."

At an institution like the College, students are responsible for openly engaging with their opponents. In his 2007 University of Southern California commencement address, Berkshire Hathaway Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger offered students his own "iron prescription" to avoid self-serving bias: I am not entitled to have an opinion on any subject until I can state the arguments against my position better than my opponents can do it themselves.

Imagine how intelligent public discourse would be in America if everyone tried to follow the Munger Rule. Political participants would actively seek out opposing ideas and consider them carefully. . . .

Given that Uncomfortable Learning voluntarily canceled its event, its opponents are right that the media unfairly focused on them. However, these activists should still be above using character defamation tactics, especially on social media. It is immature to assume that the leaders of Uncomfortable Learning have malicious intentions. Uncomfortable Learning offered a viewpoint that caused hurt feelings, but deliberately bullying specific individuals is a different level of verbal violence.

Williams Professor Sam Crane thinks the problem is not ideological openness on campus, but "conservative privilege."

This whole affair has been driven by a group, one that involves Williams students but is not a formal Williams student organization, that has privileged access to tens of thousands of dollars from conservative alumni, allowing them to transgress established college fund-raising rules that all other students and faculty must follow. The rest of us cannot, by rule, raise money from alumni or foundations without going through College channels. Yet one group gets money, unavailable to the rest of the community, and that money lends them power to transgress other rules regarding political activity on campus. . . .

[C]onservative arguments are present at Williams, in both curricular and extra-curricular ways, and, more powerfully within the political discourse and actions that surround and permeate the campus. If conservative students wish to increase the presence of their views on campus, there are regular procedures and rules that can be followed, as has been done by Williams for Life and other groups. . . .

What we are left with then is something rather familiar: a group of conservatives, most notably conservative alumni, who are able to use significant amounts of money, unavailable to others, to advance their ideology. All of this is couched in the language of "fair and balanced" discourse-but we've heard that before.

Most disturbing in all of this, to my mind, is the power this money has provided, to transgress rules that all other student groups and faculty must follow. Conservatives might want to argue that their mission is of such great importance that breaking the rules is necessary to save liberal academia from itself. This is false, and we can see that falseness when we recognize the broader contours of power and knowledge nationally and understand the mission of a liberal arts college.

At the very least, the Williams College administration should disallow the use of external alumni funds to promote the "Uncomfortable Learning" project and they should enforce all rules for student groups equally.

The co-chairs of the Williams College Feminist Collective,Olivia Goodheart and Marissa Levin Shapiro, comment:

As we discuss the Venker controversy and feminism at the College, it is easy to create a dichotomy between Venker and the College, but we must remember that not everyone at the College is a feminist. The notion that Venker would have been this community's first exposure to anti-feminist ideology is patronizing and inaccurate. As you continue to consider and debate the Venker controversy, we ask that you also use it as an opportunity to reflect on the climate of our own campus. Students already encounter anti-feminism every day at the College, and no matter your opinion on free speech, uncomfortable learning or promoting dialogues, this is unacceptable.

My prior posts on the Venker controversy are here and here.

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