Community examines Uncomfortable Learning (UL) after controversy

April 13, 2016 by Emilia Maluf, Executive Editor

This is the first installment in a two-part series on Uncomfortable Learning, which will examine the history, founding and current role of the group itself at the College.

Since last October, Uncomfortable Learning (UL), an unofficial student organization funded by anonymous donors that seeks to “[engage] with all ideas and points of view,” has been thrust into the spotlight, both on and off campus. The extension of an invitation to speak to Suzanne Venker, a self-described author and occasional Fox News contributor whose views many found misogynistic and homophobic, and subsequent cancellation of that event sparked the controversy that led to the group’s rise in ubiquity.

In February, UL planned a lecture by John Derbyshire, a self-described “novelist, pop-math author, reviewer and opinion journalist,” who many believed to be a white supremacist and racist. Ultimately, President Adam Falk cancelled Derbyshire’s lecture in a campus-wide email.

In March, UL invited Charles Murray, an author and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who has also been criticized as espousing racist evolutionary theories, to speak at the College. Although Murray’s views bear similarities to Derbyshire’s and students did organize conversations in response, his lecture occurred as scheduled.

In light of the controversy surrounding UL over the past few months, we must examine the group as a whole: How did an organization designed to respect all views transform into a group criticized for providing a platform for offensive speakers at the College?

Following in Gaudino’s footsteps

In January of 2014, Ben Fischberg ’14, David Gaines ’15 and James Hitchcock ’15 founded UL. The founders of UL drew their inspiration from Professor of Political Science Robert Gaudino’s Uncomfortable Learning initiative, which today lives on through the Gaudino Fund. Gaudino pioneered what he dubbed “experiential education” programs, in which students travelled off campus to participate in “uncomfortable learning.” Gaudino himself was a firm believer in uncomfortable learning, or the idea that there “could be no education without intellectual and emotional change.” Gaudino advocated for the College’s promotion of a “range of experiences that have the creative potential to unsettle and disturb.”

It was in pursuit of this ideal of uncomfortable learning that Fischberg, Gaines and Hitchcock founded UL. In the 2013-2014 academic year, the group consistently invited highly-regarded intellectuals to speak at the College. As Fischberg told students who gathered at the first lecture in January of 2014, the group sought to invite “speakers who challenge the Williams orthodoxy and promote intellectual diversity on campus.”

Accordingly, the group’s first speaker was KC Johnson, a past professor at the College who is now a history professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center. His talk focused on how history professors often teach specific, socially-centered materials, rather than offering a broader curriculum with respect to political and military history. He argued that, as a result, history courses are often deficient of western and American history.

A few months later, in April, UL invited four speakers to campus. The first was Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), who spoke about colleges’ tendencies to suppress students’ freedom of speech. Later in the month, economist Richard Vedder, Ohio University professor and director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, spoke about the federal government’s war on work. He argued that a lower minimum wage would benefit both the U.S. economy and minority workers. Later, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, author of The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, argued that liberals often implement clichés to prevent true discussion. Finally, the Heritage Foundation’s Michael Needham spoke about how Washington, D.C. caters to the needs of large interest groups, but neglects the public’s needs.

In the year of its inception, UL invited controversial speakers to the College, or speakers with ideas that often did not align with those of the predominantly liberal student body. Nevertheless, those speakers were intellectuals in their respective fields, all of whom focused on policy-related aspects of controversial issues, allowing for true debate and discussion of opposing sides.

In the 2014-2015 academic year, UL invited speakers such as Alan White, professor of philosophy, who spoke on varsity athletics at the College. Another speaker in UL’s second year was Casey Mulligan, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, who spoke about the economic consequences of the health reform. Until the 2015-2016 academic year, the lectures UL planned sought to explore less popular sides of widely-debated issues at the College.

Emergence of a new trend

This theme continued in the early months of this academic year. In October 2015, John Christy, a climate scientist at the University of Alabama and climate change skeptic, spoke on the economics and politics of climate change. Later that month, however, UL invited Venker to speak, prompting adverse student reactions. Unlike past speakers the group had invited, Venker did not bolster her views with intellectual reasoning or clearly proposed policy changes. Instead, many students felt that she spewed misogynistic and homophobic rhetoric unbacked by logic [“Organizers cancel Venker lecture,” Oct. 21, 2015]. As a result of student backlash, the group ultimately rescinded its invitation to Venker.

When UL invited Derbyshire to speak at the College in February of this year, many students were similarly affronted. Much like Venker, students found that Derbyshire did not provide intellectual logic to support his views, nor did he offer critiques on specific policies [“Falk cancels UL’s planned lecture by John Derbyshire,” Feb. 24,2016]. Rather, his ideas seemed to many to fall under the umbrella of white supremacism and racism. Shortly after UL’s initial advertisement of the lecture, President Falk cancelled Derbyshire’s talk.

“Many of [Derbyshire’s] expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community,” Falk said in his all-campus email.

It seems as though a new trend is materializing. Rather than inviting speakers whose views contradict widely-held ones on campus, the initial goal of the group, UL has taken to inviting speakers whose views are radically conservative and provocative, which can prevent students from engaging in productive discussions. To many, this new approach seems to not only not provide for uncomfortable learning, but also to even hinder it.

Part II of this Closer Look will examine the inner workings of UL, its existence on campus as an unrecognized student organization and the views of those affiliated with the group in both the past and the present.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

John C Drew April 13, 2016 at 3:41 am

I’m afraid that this article is ignoring the real issue which is the censorship of conservative thought at Williams College. John Derbyshire is a well-known public intellectual and certainly not, by any informed account, a white supremcist or racist.

Nevertheless, his writings do raise significant issues about how IQ, race and culture impact public policy and political culture. It is important for informed people to be up-to-speed on these issues if we are going to find plausible solutions to our nation’s most pressing problems.

What disturbed me the most about the censorship of John Derbyshire was the unwillingness of so many on the Williams College campus to defend the cause of freedom of speech. In the process, I think the college is harmed whenever it creates a hostile environment for scholars and students interested in exploring the common sense ideas of Derbyshire and others in greater depth.

Too often, the truth has been censored by those empowered by lies. It looks to me like uncomfortable learning should be applauded — not threatened or restrained — by everyone who wants to brave adults speak truth to power.

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