Here we are, folks, on the other side of a second Uncomfortable Learning (UL) time-suck. It took a lot of deep breaths to ride this one out, and now it’s time to rein it in. There’s a solution to all this mess: good old regulation.
I think by now it’s clear that the issues with UL go beyond John Derbyshire himself; its hamartia is the untempered ill judgment of its current leadership. These students operate without a faculty advisor and appear to be funded entirely by a squad of conservative alumni (What is the group noun for that demographic? An annoyance?). The funding from these alumni goes directly unchecked into the linty pockets of drones like Derbyshire. When this advisor-free leadership model worked in the past, it was merely a spell of good fortune. The previous incarnation of UL brought legitimate speakers like Michael Needham ’04 of Heritage Action for America, whose opinions are firmly right-of-center but whose relationship with reality is far less casual than Derbyshire’s. Now it seems that the tides of student leadership have turned in a frothier direction.
The College has the right to demand that a group affiliated, but not registered, with the institution shape up or be disbanded. They’ve done it before. Remember all the frat parties you never go to? In the decades after the dissolution of fraternities at the College, unofficial frats would surface, like blisters, and be broken. One of the College’s multiple declarations against fraternities (see the policies page of the school website) ended in the following clarifying statement: “To avoid misunderstanding, we wish to make clear our support for the rights of students to form or join any of the many formal or informal groups that are appropriate to this college community and consistent with the College’s educational program.” It is when these values are violated that the place of a group, formal or informal, within the College is called into question – as it should be now.
A fraternity it is not, but UL, as it exists today, has made a strong, nearly yearlong argument against its being “appropriate to this college community.” The opinions of Derbyshire, too, are inconsistent with the College’s educational program, which thankfully strives to avoid white supremacist screeds. It’s precisely this kind of ground-floor human decency that makes the College what it is, and gives the good people over at Forbes carpal tunnel singing its praises.
Which reminds me: The current UL is also a public relations nightmare. The College has been in the news twice in the past school year as a result of this merry band of agitators, whose affiliation with the College is that they happen to go there. All this media attention may be deserved, but I think reporters are burying the lede: The College is allowing a pseudo-intellectual group – more infatuated with its maverick status than the noble calling to which it lays claim – to run amok, beholden to none of the rules that govern student organizations. Look, an informal group is not always a bad thing. The concept itself is benign. If the Beekeeping Club were to unshackle itself from College Council (CC), the honey would still taste as sweet. But if the beekeepers then were to cultivate a colony of killer bees, we might regret allowing them to live outside the law.
I’m not saying that UL should be shut down, or even that its leaders should do penance. UL should be given the chance for reincarnation among CC’s registered student groups. This could only improve UL, not just because the bar is toe-stubbingly low, but also because the founding idea of UL is squarely within the lines of the educational and communal values of the College. It was Robert Gaudino, a former political science professor, not this group, that coined the term “uncomfortable learning” at the College. Registering with CC would open UL to CC funding, which could spare its members the indignity of serving as ventriloquist’s dummies for disaffected alumni. It would also make sure that UL is equipped with a faculty advisor whose oversight could lend consistency and mitigate future blunders. (Don’t jostle each other fighting to the front of that line, professors!)
UL’s leadership has mocked its professed ideals by turning them into a kind of base performance art, but I’m not buying it; they’ve been called on their bluff twice in the current academic year. The first time, they were cowed by the discomfort that resulted from classmates’ dissent. This time, with Derbyshire, they really overshot their mark. (Good job, team. Hate speech is “uncomfortable.” It’s observations like these that keep our diploma printers busy.) The College should make moves to bring UL under the umbrella of CC. At the very least, it should continue making decisions like the one it made on Thursday.
A private institution is within its rights to reify its values through policy. That’s how Deep Springs gets its students to herd cattle. There are all kinds of things you can do outside the purple bubble that are impermissible within. In the rest of America, for example, you can own a slingshot and fear no consequences beyond a misfired stone. Not so at the College – look it up. Likewise, in the rest of America, one can stand on a stack of milk crates shouting hateful inanities. Not so at the College.
And that makes me, at least, conservatively optimistic.
Natalee Dawson ’15 was an English major. She lives in Washington, D.C.