At every college tour, I asked the standard litany of questions: how was the food? The dorms? Were professors kind? Every guide I encountered politely answered my questions with practiced ease, their preparation obvious.
Then, I asked my final and most important question: how open to diverse opinions was the student body?
At this, my Wellesley tour guide paused, giving herself a measured moment to think. After a few more paces she replied: students respect people who can argue their opinions.
She didn’t elaborate.
I knew what I was getting into at Wellesley. The student body was diverse but distinctly liberal, the same probably said for the staff and administration. As a registered Democrat and self-identified feminist progressive, my worry was not finding conservative friends but encountering group think. While I do not tend to agree with Republicans, I loved my high school experience that had loud and informed progressives, centrists and conservatives.
Concerns somewhat assuaged, I packed my bags and came to Wellesley.
I don’t regret coming to Wellesley. I have loved my professors, have made incredible friends and grown in ways I could not have imagined when graduating high school. Though my biggest qualm with Wellesley is exactly what I feared it would be: a startling lack of debate and an oppressive cloud of group think.
After being off campus for two years due to COVID-19, it is this year, my senior year, that I have most experienced this phenomenon. An anecdote to illustrate my point:
I found the attempted de-platforming of the Wellesley For Life student group and their speaker Kristan Hawkins to be disheartening. Not satisfied with only speaking up in my friend group, I turned to a familiar avenue: submitting to Counterpoint. I wrote a short piece explaining why I found some of the arguments against Hawkins’ presence faulty and concluded the piece with a defense of something I find crucial in a liberal arts education: freedom of speech.
I knew this would be a controversial opinion, but I was prepared to have discussions with anyone who sought me out. What I was not prepared for was to be shamed by a student organization. To be called “disrespectful” for attempting to share my opinion. Despite the Counterpoint website claiming that they “remain dedicated to promoting individual thought, casual popular scholarship, education and campus dialogue,” they refused to even work with me to edit my piece to meet their “guidelines.”
Despite the fact that Counterpoint staff stated in their email that they are “a place for all students to tell their stories,” this clearly does not apply to opinions not shared by the Counterpoint staff.
In my opinion, if I am still allowed to have one, it is nonsensical that an on-campus publication thinks that they can have their cake and eat it too. Either Counterpoint is nonpartisan and publishes everything, or they are selective and partisan, at the whim of their members.
I know which of these configurations I would prefer.
A tenet of a liberal arts education, in my opinion, is to form one’s own opinions by engaging with others. And yet all I have encountered at Wellesley is anyone who does not share a “popular” opinion being socially ostracized and shamed, treated as an idiot or an enemy. Wellesley students love knowledge, enjoy politics, learning and diversity, but we have a long way to go as a student body before we can consider ourselves accepting.
What is my ideal Wellesley? One where simply being a part of the college Democrats or Republicans is not used as shorthand for deeming someone a good or bad person. A campus where debate is incentivized and cherished rather than shut down with claims of harm. I wish Wellesley was the safe space that it claims to be, for everyone, rather than just those with popular opinions. I wish Wellesley students fostered a community of inquiry rather than dubbing any dissent or questioning as malicious.
I ask us all to consider students from different parts of the country or the world who may be encountering these ideas for the first time. To make space for those who grew up in completely different cultures and environments. I ask you to look at your fellow students not as opposition but as people who are also doing their best to think for themselves just as you are. Someone who disagrees with you is not always evil or uneducated, an opportunity to slander another student. Instead upon finding difference we should engage with those areas of incongruence to ask questions, engage, and understand.
Too often we forget that there is no winning in a discussion. Each side should be open to learning from the other, to taking probing questions not as attacks but as genuine inquiry. We do ourselves an intellectual disservice when we refuse to engage in discussion. We do poorly by students who genuinely want to learn, we do poorly by students who disagree, and we even do poorly by students who hold “popular” opinions because they never learn how to defend them.
If College is supposed to prepare students for the real world, I wish Wellesley students would allow it to do just that: emulate real workplaces and social dynamics. In the workplace, in clubs, organizations and recreational groups post Wellesley, hard conversations and debates will have to be had. Conversations and disagreements that can’t be resolved with shunning or passive aggression. How will we deal with this when never presented the opportunity? Why not start to have these difficult and nuanced conversations when we are Wellesley students? What better way to prepare for future situations than to dip our toes in the water as a community.
Hopefully the administration continues to lead by example and incentivizes students and faculty to act the same. I whole-heartedly agree with President Johnson’s decision to let Hawkins’ on campus, and hope that she shows support to any other controversial speakers invited to lecture at Wellesley. Wellesley students are tough. We can tolerate speaking to people that disagree with us, we can tolerate them in our classes and on our campus and in our lives. It is time we start acting like it.