Subjects and events mentioned in this article will remain unnamed for the sake of anonymity. The author hopes the absence of specific details regarding speakers’ and students’ identities will not deter the reader from reflecting on the lessons learned.
Over the past semester at Wellesley, several invited speakers were met with loud protest from a variety of vociferous segments of our campus community. I found myself at the center of one of these controversies and was asked to rebut the protest in writing and justify on issue-based, ideological grounds why we invited them to speak. I was asked to claim victimhood for the sake of ideological propaganda. I refused. In reflection, I find myself appreciative that those who protested our event engaged in constructive, respectful public discourse. The intra-campus dialogue is healthy, I feel, over and above the particular ideological disputes at issue, and no matter my personal views. The debate is what is crucial, and it belongs in our halls. I believe controversy has a legitimate and important place on our campus. I write in support of campus debate.
Some would argue that the stately stone towers and precisely cut greens of New England’s elite academic institutions are proper headquarters for political action, dissent and social change. On that score, I respectfully disagree. Despite the hardships, discrimination and marginalization many of us undoubtedly experience as undergraduates, we ought not forget our privileged situation here at Wellesley College. Furthermore, academic institutions are meant to be an oasis for the cultivation of intellect, that great exercise of liberty: to speak, to question and to criticize even the truths we hold to be self-evident.
We are not fighting the world’s battles here on campus. While at Wellesley we are not victims, this is our privilege to claim. Though some of us experience turmoil, it is imperative we recognize that the eye of the world’s storms do not center on these grounds. Our education at Wellesley is meant to prepare us to fight those battles after commencement. When we fight these battles it will be not as victims, but as effective agents of change.
Sheltered from the disruptions of victimhood we are given the opportunity to develop our intellectual skills by engaging in critical, constructive conversation on the very issues that puzzle or frighten us. We are given the opportunity to participate, not as victims or as warriors, but first and foremost as students of critical thought. Each ethnic, religious, national, sexual and ideological difference represents a rare opportunity for intellectual development. Along with those opportunities come attendant responsibilities to exercise intellectual curiosity and to push the margins of discourse to uncomfortable limits. We are here at Wellesley to push those limits. It is at the limits of discourse where we encounter the real stuff of learning.
Education is meant to be neither easy, nor to be comfortable. We suffer the discomfort in order to grow. We learn by acknowledging opposition while continuing to consider critically the substance of the opposing arguments. Those discomfiting efforts allow us clearly to distinguish signal from noise, establishing clarity as a measure of well-founded thought. Our skill in developing well-founded thought will help turn our own future battles in our favor. Patient resilience is a difficult technique to master, but those capable of effecting change covet it as a high virtue. To acquire this skill we, victim and bystander alike, must develop a tolerance for intellectual, moral and ethical discomfort.
These four short, formative undergraduate years are meant to open questions not close them. If we claim victimhood to stop the conversation, we disable ourselves. Rejecting opposition in hopes of resolving controversy provides only a short-term sense of ideological security. Understanding and overcoming opposition secures resilience. To host controversial issues are the hallmark of a mature educational institution. It is a rare and valuable gift to be a member of such an institution. Our responsibility is to recognize that maturity, to appreciate it and to encourage the conversation that it enables. Disagree with me, yes, but permit the disagreement with humble decorum and generosity of spirit. It is, at the end of the day, why we are here.