This year has witnessed age-old questions of free speech surface on many college campuses, including ours. These questions are important, but in many instances their complexity is exaggerated. College campuses, particularly private ones, are not public squares. When a college provides space and facilities for a speaker, even when it doesn’t recruit or fund that speaker, the issue is no longer one of free speech. That college is the arbiter of the space, and individuals access it at the administration’s discretion. The question facing the administration is not, then, one of free speech but rather of how this discretion should be applied. In an environment designed to support intellectual inquiry and foster challenges to the status quo, who and what speech should be restricted? What should be the threshold? Should colleges set the bar for restricting such access no lower than speakers whose views are destructive and not so widely held?
The students face a different question. With four, short years in an undergraduate academic environment, what kinds of ideas do we want to bring to campus to educate ourselves? We can decide how to stretch ourselves and how to accent our learning in the classroom with valuable insights we acquire outside of it.
The administration and faculty provide students with many great options that stu-dents don’t even need to facilitate themselves. But the rest is on the students. A capella groups, dance clubs, student-run papers and the many other extracurricular groups are ways students often choose to find fun away from coursework. These ac-tivities are, in many cases, chances for more than just fun. They serve as opportunities for students to develop interpersonal skills, grow their writing skills, build upon a niche talent and much else. These activities all contribute in unique ways to how we educate ourselves outside of the classroom.
One student group that attempts to make such a contribution to the campus, but has consistently been under attack this year, is Uncomfortable Learning (UL). With its choice of speakers this year, UL has created good cause for criticism. But much of the animosity directed at it has been misguided. As a progressive student who has had considerable interest in joining, I want to make clear why a group like this is an asset the student body should appreciate.
Like the various extracurricular groups mentioned earlier, a group that brings speak-ers to campus to present contentious views has the ability to stretch students. It creates an opportunity to challenge common ideas and encourages us to take positions based on critical thinking and reasoned analysis rather than feelings of comfort or familiarity. Decades ago, this might have meant bringing a speaker to campus who understood the science of climate change at a time when even a place like the College had a far smaller population that grasped it. Accepting this reality at a time when it was highly unpopular meant taking uncomfortable and irritating steps to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Today, it might mean bringing a speaker to campus to defend Social Security, an issue where fear-mongerers enjoy stirring the pot to play upon irrational concerns about the program’s funding.
But let’s be crystal clear about what qualifies as uncomfortable learning. Racist, hateful speech on the order of John Derbyshire’s is not uncomfortable learning. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. Not only are his arguments clearly ideas that we can’t learn from, but they aren’t even views that are widespread enough that informed voters or political activists will need to confront them and the culture that breeds them in order to create meaningful policy change.
But the type of criticism that Derbyshire’s invitation sparked from the student body was largely misplaced and is reflective of deeper misunderstandings on this campus about the problems with this type of speech and the potential value of a group like UL. The problem with Derbyshire speaking is not that it would make people feel uncomfortable. If people don’t want to hear the speaker, they can choose not to come to the one room on campus where the speaker is lecturing. The real problem is that speakers like Derbyshire waste time. With limited resources, we could get interesting and valuable information, but instead, we get a bigot.
Instead of grumbling about the loss of a safe space, as a campus, let’s think logically about the potential value of UL. If a speaker like Derbyshire is suggested, let’s take issue with the wasted opportunity to have a great, informative speaker. As a campus, let’s support this group and encourage it to find interesting speakers, rather than condemning the idea as a whole. While it does get funding from outside contributors rather than from College Council, let’s be excited about the funds and advocate for their effective use instead of moaning because the baking club didn’t get the same. UL could play a meaningful, educational role like many of the other extracurricular options on campus. To realize its potential, we need to stand up for its growth and the invitation of exciting but challenging speakers, rather than fussing over its past failures. Let’s stand up for our education and not overlook great opportunities.
Hank Lee ’19 is from Wayzata, Minn. He lives in Williams Hall.