Let’s Trade: Embracing a Brighter Approach to Campus Discourse

Late last semester, protests by disaffected student groups at the University of Missouri and Yale over various forms of perceived discrimination sparked a national conversation on campus culture. Demonstrations began with hostility at Mizzou, where members of Concerned Student 1950 set up a human barricade in front of then-president Tim Wolfe’s car, screaming grievances at him through a megaphone until police arrived to clear them from the road. Protests continued and spread like wildfire across the country, as groups like Black Lives Matter and the Black Justice League blocked roads, seized public buildings, occupied private offices, stormed town hall forums, sacked libraries, vandalized university property, shoved journalists, slandered dissenters, harassed classmates, and spat on peers. Opposing voices were often no better, responding at times with defacement, intimidation, and even death threats.

What a disgrace.

It’s clear that the last thing these warriors want is the creation of an “intellectual space,” as one student shrieked in confession. Whatever their respective causes, these are not the tactics of activists seeking honestly to reach the minds of their fellow students. One doesn’t scream tolerance into his classmate’s character, or shove reflection upon his conscience, or browbeat racism from his soul.

These are the methods of belligerent bullies—the tactics of thugs. And their hostility unmasks a malevolent sense of university life, where campuses are battlefields on which ideas can make life “unsafe,” where classmates are combatants who are “either with them or against them,” and where even “silence is violence.” In such a place, discussion ends where disagreement begins because the difference between words and weapons “is only [one] of degree.” Honest discourse becomes anathema.

Is this how one should view life in an academic community?

Absolutely not. There is a more positive approach to university life, and it begins with a brighter view of your classmates. At root, your fellow students are thinking minds—just like you are. They have unique souls with convictions, passions, and dreams of their own—just like you do. And if they’ve thought it through, they’re there for a purpose—just like you. Part of what makes college so valuable is that every new face represents a great potential: the benefit and pleasure of knowing a mind willing to discuss, to discover, to learn, to create, to achieve—with you.

As fellow members of an academic community, college students ought to approach one another with this in mind—as traders in ideas who deal in intellectual currency. Perhaps without knowing it, this is already how students interact on a number of fronts. You see such traders all around you: speaking up in class, tabling in the quad, laughing over coffee, collaborating on projects, penning columns for the school paper, discussing dreams late into the night, running for student government, holding hands through campus, organizing club meetings, reading silently together in the stacks, voicing concerns at town hall forums—and yes, even protesting. They’re the students who offer their thoughts with enthusiasm, who ask for yours with sincerity, and who shake your hand in benevolence and respect.

This is what it means to join an academic community, and this is how fellow students ought to approach one another.

Of course even as traders, you may find in one another voices of passionate disagreement. But if what you seek is to inspire minds and to earn their fellowship, the appropriate response is to engage dissenters in a persuasive, intellectual dialogue. The first to forget that a mind cannot be bullied into opening its doors is a defector from civility—a soldier for the battlefield campus. Universities today need no such soldiers—only confident voices willing to emphasize the importance of respectful debate, the seriousness of ideas, and the immense value of a vibrant campus dialogue.

Perhaps one such voice is Zachary Wood, a sophomore out at Williams College and co-president of Uncomfortable Learning there. Concerned that his peers were starting to eschew discussion of unsettling ideas (as one popular voice suggested last spring), Wood joined the group in an effort to stimulate dialogue on campus. He explains:

When I started at Williams College in 2014, I was looking forward to my classes and activities. But I was most excited about the chance to engage in aggressive, vociferous debate with my peers, professors and visiting speakers.

To me, that’s what college is all about. I value provocative, even offensive, speech because it unsettles me and jars me into challenging my own thinking. Without being made to feel uncomfortable, I wouldn’t question certain assumptions or rethink firmly held beliefs.

To promote this kind of engagement at Williams, I joined Uncomfortable Learning, a student-run organization that brings controversial speakers to campus.

Another potential candidate is Christopher Robotham, a junior at Brown University and president of Reason@Brown. Worried that campus discourse was becoming increasingly hostile and repressive, Robotham started his group as a “forum where Brown students can engage in free expression in an atmosphere where open and vigorous debate is welcome and valued.” As he explains:

I decided to start a secret group called Reason@Brown for conversations that the political majority does not want to take place in public. The group, which has grown from five or so people a year ago to more than 130, is for students who are interested in engaging in critical conversations about any issue in a setting where they will not be subject to social censure or worse for doing so. That such a group exists constitutes a failure of the university to create the sort of intellectual paradise that it has advertised, and for which students pay a six-figure amount.

Both leaders certainly deserve praise for their generally positive approaches to university life. Each is stimulating discussion, engaging with classmates, and seems to place a primer on respectful dialogue.

But while these are qualities worth emulating, there’s something missing from their respective efforts. Part of what it means to be a trader is that one exhibits both the willingness and the presence of mind to recognize others for the values, or potential values, that they are.

While Uncomfortable Learning’s goal of pushing boundaries and challenging assumptions among one’s peers is a laudable one, Wood has received critique—and rightly so—for his club’s “uninviting” a speaker due to virulent protests from other groups on campus. By pulling an event he considered important to university dialogue, Wood failed to treat his classmates—the ones he might have impacted and never did—as minds worth reaching and connecting with. And while Robotham seems intent through Reason@Brown to create a space where the expression and exchange of ideas is cherished and practiced, that he chooses to operate underground raises questions about his willingness to engage in a broader discussion.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing to reject classmates who, in your judgment, will never bring value to your college experience. In fact, a trader looking to get the most out of his time in school would be well-advised to avoid hopeless racists and combative opponents of open debate. But not all classmates are so beyond redemption. And so long as Robotham continues to view classmates outside his small group essentially as lost causes, he skirts the process of individualized moral judgment appropriate to an earnest trader. These two young men are on the right track, but they have room for growth in the semesters to come.

One group of students out at Claremont McKenna College, however, hit the nail on the head. After a number of classmates engaged in protests of a tone similar to the kind chronicled above, members of the Claremont Independent Editorial Board won national attention for their powerful response, “We Dissent.” While there’s much to praise in their statement (which deserves to be read in its entirety), one excerpt in particular stands out among the rest:

[W]e are disappointed in students like ourselves, who were scared into silence. We are not racist for having different opinions. We are not immoral because we don’t buy the flawed rhetoric of a spiteful movement. We are not evil because we don’t want this movement to tear across our campuses completely unchecked.

We are no longer afraid to be voices of dissent.

Notice that these students screamed in no faces, blocked no streets, and pillaged no libraries. Nor did they shy away or isolate themselves from the discussion. Instead, at a time when emotions on campus were sky-high, these dissenters reached out to their entire academic community by striking an impressive balance between serious criticism and controlled respect, leaving the door open for future dialogue.

This is the sort of conduct that treats fellow students as minds worth appealing to and engaging with. It conveys two crucial messages: one to the battlefield activists, that fellow students are not enemy combatants; and another to their detractors, that neither caving to bullies nor hiding from them entirely can bring about the culture shift our universities so desperately need.

In the semesters to come, students across the country must exhibit more of this courage. They must shed themselves of the fear and anxiety holding them back from openly embracing a more noble vision of campus life—a vision that holds up universities as bastions of intellectual discovery, and that counsels them to approach their fellows, not with the hostility of enemy combatants, but with the benevolence and respect appropriate to fellow traders in a community of thinking minds.

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