Monday, April 3, 2017

Dueling Statements at Middlebury

At Middlebury College the fallout from the violent attack on Charles Murray continues. More than a hundred members of the faculty signed a statement supporting free speech on campus, which contained the following points:
  • Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected.
  • Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.
  • The impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse can never justify efforts to silence speech and debate.
  • Exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence.
  • Students have the right to challenge and to protest non-disruptively the views of their professors and guest speakers.
  • A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act.
  • No group of professors or students has the right to act as final arbiter of the opinions that students may entertain.
  • No group of professors or students has the right to determine for the entire community that a question is closed for discussion.
  • The purpose of college is not to make faculty or students comfortable in their opinions and prejudices.
  • The purpose of education is not the promotion of any particular political or social agenda.
  • The primary purpose of higher education is the cultivation of the mind, thus allowing for intelligence to do the hard work of assimilating and sorting information and drawing rational conclusions.
  • A good education produces modesty with respect to our own intellectual powers and opinions as well as openness to considering contrary views.
  • We are steadfast in our purpose to provide all current and future students an education on this model, and we encourage our colleagues at colleges across the country to do the same.
The students behind the protest responded with a point by point rebuttal, which includes some cogent arguments. A sample:
Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected.

Many who chose to disrupt the events of March 2 did so with this principle in mind. We contend that free, reasoned, and civil discussion are certainly necessary for genuine higher learning, but that the speaker in question denies the basic equality of those invited to engage in such discourse, and therefore undermines the foundation of such discourse. By protesting the characterization of the speaker’s research as worthwhile of academic inquiry, students did more to defend the integrity of reasoned and civil discourse at Middlebury than did the administration and co-sponsors of this event.

We hope that Middlebury College would not allow a classroom debate in which a white student argued that the black students in the class, due to inferior intellectual inheritance, did not belong. We ask the undersigned professors to consider the historical and societal context for such a debate, and to consider what base assumptions make the inverse argument, that white students are genetically inferior to black students, so far outside of our collective imagination or dialogue.

A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act.

In his oft-quoted Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr warned of a white moderate “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’”

No group of professors or students has the right to determine for the entire community that a question is closed for discussion.

What is the point of enumerating “unassailable” core values if not to signal that certain questions are closed for discussion? When professors say “the impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse can never justify efforts to silence speech and debate,” does that not signal to student protesters that they are unwilling to listen to or discuss alternative perspectives on the matter?
Amen to that last. The notion of completely free and open debate is a mirage, certainly on any university campus. There are always limits to what we will admit into civilized discussion. In admitting that they are setting limits to the sort of debate they will tolerate, the students are being more honest than the high-minded professors. The debate is not over whether to have completely free debate, which nobody truly wants; it is over what the limits should be.

I actually find this exchange of manifestos encouraging. It represents the kind of argument over fundamental principles that we all agree ought to be a key part of university education. And thus in a roundabout way it upholds the wisdom of inviting Charles Murray to the campus in the first place: it has forced both sides to make the best arguments they can for their positions. This, right here, is education as I understand it.

Here is how a cynical university administrator might sum up the whole affair: In America, there are racists. If we never let our students confront racism, they will never learn how to argue against it; in fact they might simply be so astonished by it that they might not know how to respond. Obviously we can't bring David Duke to campus, so what we need to do is to find a racist – or a man who can plausibly be portrayed as one – with sufficient academic credibility to make the invitation believable. We'll invite him to speak and then watch the students who rebel against this really get to work, first organizing their opposition and then having to defend it against the withering assaults we know they will get from the Free Inquiry crowd. Plus they will get to see themselves attacked by big-name columnists in the Times and dragged through the mud on Fox News, things that anyone who wants to change the world will have to put up with sooner or later. Think what a learning experience it will be. They'll hate us, of course, but why should we care about that? It's our job to shake them out of the safe cocoons they grew up in and prod them into life; the last thing they need is more warmth and cuddles. Welcome to the real world of politics and the intellect, kiddos.


Stuart B said...

Lovely, John! But aren't the students doing well?

Unknown said...

I would agree that the students are getting the better end of the argument, especially on the "closed question" point. I wonder how many of those professors would be willing to let a holocaust denier speak. I would hope none.

G. Verloren said...


I lost two larger drafts due to technical issues, so I'll try to sum up what I have to say.

I think your general notion of education is fundamentally flawed. I've remarked upon this somewhat in other posts previously.

The job of a teacher is to offer both knowledge and encouragement to those who seek to learn. It's not enough to simply give someone access to information - if it were, why would anyone pay for a teacher to give instruction instead of simply dumping a book in a student's lap?

To be a good teacher, you must understand and respect your pupil's limits. Your job is to push boundaries and expand horizons, but you must be careful not to push too hard and cause needless harm or suffering. Students who are angry, frustrated, hurt, or otherwise in distress learn poorly - and a teacher who does not take care to strike a careful balance can end up sabotaging their own efforts to teach.

Yes, learning is often painful. But it is the job of the teacher to act humanely and compassionately - to teach the essential, uncomfortable truths of reality, but to do so with kindness, empathy, gentleness, and patience.

You don't teach a course on the Holocaust by leaping straight into a slideshow of mutilated corpses and mass graves. You start by getting everyone on the same page - you give an overview of what the course will cover, and you assess your students' familiarity with the material. You warn people in advance that the topic is very difficult and that learning about it is often painful, but also stress the incredible importance of it.

At all points, offer reassurances and comfort. If people struggle with the material emotionally, you have both a moral obligation and a practical compulsion to pause in the instruction and do what is necessary to ensure their wellbeing. You do not press, you do not push, and you do not berate. You help them to cope with what they're already grappling with before continuing on to further difficulties. And if they decide it is all just too much for them, despite encouragement and assistance, you allow them to withdraw without judgement or penalty.

People simply don't learn when they're pushed past their limits. They shut down.

You don't teach a child how to swim by throwing them off a boat in the middle of the Atlantic during a storm. That creates a crisis point - a literal "sink or swim" moment. Yes, some individuals will "rise to the occasion", but these are the innately talented ones who were already capable of succeeding, and would have readily learned how to swim no matter what. For the others, who are not yet able to cope with such a challenge, all you do is traumatize them, creating anxiety, fear, and suffering, which are all direct impediments to learning. Overall you stand to gain nothing, and you risk losing quite a lot. It's senseless.

Rather, the proper way to teach someone how to swim is to constantly set them against challenges appropriate to their current ability level. Set the bar low to begin with, see who struggles against it and who clears it easily, and then adjust accordingly for each individual. The talented ones who blow through the easily challenges can progress to harder ones, while the ones with less ability can work through their own personal obstacles at a slower pace, with the benefit of encouragement and reassurance.

Kids need to learn how to deal with racism? You'll do far more to help them by making them feel like you're there to help them, rather than making them feel like you're working against them and like you're betraying them and their trust.

John said...

I think everything depends on the student, and some do learn best by being thrown in over their heads. At least the students who wrote that counter-manifesto are still well within their limits and learning at a very high level.

szopen said...

The problem here is that Charles Murray is not a racist, and his book presented a lot of mainstream science, yet there are still people who think his book is "fringe science".