Confessions: Prior to two weeks ago, I had never heard of Suzanne Venker; I was one of Robert Gaudino’s students, one of the co-founders of the Gaudino Fund, served as its Chair three separate times for about 30 years and just term-limited off the Board in September; and I am the founder and director of the Winter Study Program’s (WSP) “Resettling Refugees and Immigrants in Maine.” I had not planned to add to the post-Venker media pile.
But lost in the flurry of Facebook, Record and Williams Alternative volleys about the dis-invitation to campus by a group calling itself “Uncomfortable Learning” is attention to a very basic pedagogical question first addressed by Professor Gaudino over 40 years ago (both in a book by that title and in other papers and many discussions): What exactly is “uncomfortable learning” in a liberal arts education?
One answer: It is not someone standing in front of an audience to espouse an ideology. That is not dialogue, not Socratic, not an educator or speaker willing to reduce his or her own self in order to give space to the students to wrestle – verbally, publicly – with their own views, beliefs, biases, ignorance. Gaudino was a Socratic gadfly – while he liked to provoke discussion and at times controversy, he never tried to impose his own beliefs or ideology upon students, faculty or community members. Indeed, unlike 2015 where people fall over each other to trumpet their views on social media and elsewhere, hardly anyone really knew what Gaudino’s political or philosophical beliefs were.
Why? Because Gaudino was first and foremost a teacher – he focused on the learning more than on the uncomfortable. Uncomfortable was a means to learning, but never more important. Whether it was in Gaudino’s 1970s Williams-at-Home program in the rural Deep South, Appalachia, Iowa, a Detroit auto factory, his programs in India or, more recently, my program in Portland, Maine or the Gaudino Fellowship initiative, the goals of uncomfortable learning in the Gaudino tradition track those of a liberal arts education – to help students take an active (not passive) role in the learning process, and learn from their experiences through rigorous and critical dialogue, reflection and activity.
The goals of uncomfortable learning were also well-articulated in a 1982 faculty resolution that supported the recently-formed Gaudino Fund and creation of the Gaudino Scholar position: To “challenge both academic and life assumptions, values, perceptions. Students should, for example, not only learn about public authority or public institutions or such inarticulate values and forces as race, class, occupation, age, geographic location, education and religion; they should also begin to learn about their own education and learning. The process of learning becomes an experience that is a subject for disciplined reflection.”
Indeed, the process of learning can become a life-long pursuit. For example, it was when I returned to the College as a junior to find that many faculty disputed the educational value of Williams-at-Home that I kindled a life-long interest in pedagogy and experiential modes of learning – an indirect outcome of uncomfortable learning that has, since my graduating from the College, helped me be a far better legal and educational professional than I otherwise would have been.
I suspect most know the epigram, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Nothing in the October postings has not been hotly debated before; even the issue of what uncomfortable learning has meant at the College, long before an “unrecognized” student group took the phrase as its title, was addressed in a May 7, 2014 letter in the Record entitled “Clarifying the Gaudino Fund.” There, Professor of History and Faculty Affiliate in Leadership Studies and Religion Magnus Bernhardsson and Professor of Biology Lois Banta (past and current Gaudino Scholars) and myself wrote: “The ‘uncomfortable learning’ process that Professor Gaudino nurtured both inside and outside the classroom at Williams involves an ideology-free reflection on one’s own assumptions and experience, deep self-questioning, empathy for distinct human realities quite different from one’s own and a commitment to experiential education.”
Would a lecture by Ms. Venker have met that definition? I doubt it, though I would have supported her speaking at the College. But I would have wanted attendees to understand that the exercise would likely not have been the kind of uncomfortable learning demonstrated by the many materials and pages of the Gaudino Fund website, by Sophia Rosenfeld ’15 in her 2013 “Daring Change” presentation about her Gaudino-inspired experiences in the Maine WSP and in my TEDx talk about Gaudino’s Williams-at-Home program (one I did as a sophomore at the College) and my Maine program.
Watch them, read up on Gaudino and then – as President Adam Falk suggested in his Convocation remarks – truly engage in as many opportunities for uncomfortable learning as possible with your teachers, students, friends, community contacts, family members and strangers. Do a homestay (or two) with people very different from your family and self. Never stop learning, exploring or listening – those will be the most valuable skills you can learn from your liberal arts education at the College.
Jeff Thaler ’74 is a co-founder and past Chair of the Gaudino Fund. He lives in Yarmouth, Maine.