Steven Volk, September 26, 2010
How can we as teachers help our students think about contentious events on campus in a productive and useful fashion? I hope I’m not being totally naïve when I ask this question, because I do believe faculty have a serious responsibility to engage these issues. Not only are we members of this community with standing, but we carry a considerable amount of moral authority. Here, then, are some suggestions. If you have more, as well as contrary opinions, please post them to the blog or send them to me.
1. Provide context. As an historian, I always find context is important. We live in an increasingly contentious time in which speakers and viewpoints out of favor with legislators, administrations, faculties, or students are being outright banned or prevented from being represented on campus at a growing rate. The poster child for this is Bill Ayers, a (recently retired) education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was banned from the University of Wyoming, Boston College, Georgia Southern, and the University of Nebraska, among others. Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Chris Hedges was booed off the stage during a commencement speech at Rockford College (an event described in the local paper under the Orwellian headline: “Speaker Disrupts RC Graduation”). Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was continually disrupted as he attempted to speak at the University of California, Irvine in February 2010. [For more, see the ACLU (http://www.aclu.org/free-speech) and FIRE (http://www.thefire.org/cases/topcases ).] Of course, the highly contentious “town hall” meetings of the summer of 2009 stand as a backdrop to the present moment, even if they took place in a different sphere than the academic. Nor is the banning or disrupting of speakers on U.S. campuses a new occurrence (think back to the many bans on left-wing, radical, and communist speakers in the 1950s and 1960). But I would suggest that the context of Mr. Rove’s talk is one in which the space for civil discourse has been narrowing, and it is useful for students to consider how their actions on one campus can become a part of a chilling trend in which debate is replaced with shouts.
2. Of course, the heart of the discussion one can have with students has to do with not just the first amendment right to free speech, which is extremely important in and of itself (even in its breech), but of the particular rules of discourse and behavior in our own educational community. These are not easy discussions to have with students, but they are important ones. Stating the obvious – that we are a community dedicated to the exchange of ideas – is useful but insufficient. Is it never right to disrupt a speaker, however uniformly hateful he or she may be? Unwilling to play the “Hitler card” so soon, I would raise a less significant straw man: what about Florida pastor Terry Jones? Once given a forum, should he be prevented from speaking? Allowing students to discuss these issues in class can provide them with a somewhat sheltered space to think about these questions – unlike what they are likely to find in Finney on Tuesday. I say that the rules of our community are useful but insufficient because our students (indeed we, ourselves) find these inadequate to solve the question by themselves. Otherwise, we could just pull out our JS Mill and leave it at that. So I do believe we should discuss the behaviors which bind us as a community as a starting point, including the right for many to speak, but also would argue that we have to go beyond that.
3. Help students think things through to the end. Full disclosure: I participated in a few confrontations at my graduate university when we prohibited speakers from speaking. I felt deeply, passionately and personally convinced that these individuals were criminals (and while my views have hopefully become a bit more sophisticated over the years, I still see them as exactly that, criminals). And yet I wonder to this day whether my tactics (not my beliefs) would have been different had members of the faculty I respected encouraged me to think the matter through to the end. Yes, you can prevent “x” from speaking here, and students at the other university down the road can do the same, but what is it you want to accomplish besides denying him a stage? Disruptions turn conversations around to the issue of disruption, not the presentation of the political or humanitarian matters that you want to call attention to.
4. As students who are, hopefully, training to be more than chemists, historians, or oboe players – who are training, in fact, to be citizens, we can help them ask questions about the events that they will confront. Why, for example, is a particular speaker invited to speak on campus? Without impugning the motives of the College Republicans in this particular case, I would suggest that at least one purpose of the invitation was to be provocative, i.e., to challenge or test the campus by showcasing a lightning-rod figure whose views are likely to be generally unpopular to the majority. (There are other purposes as well, of course, but this is the one that is important to our discussion. The others are subsumed under Mill’s observation that one reason for free speech is that you can actually learn from what you hear.) One can probably say similar things about other speakers from different viewpoints, but as teachers we ask our students to be smart, not naïve, and one way to be smart is to question motives, and not accept arguments on face value. What, then, is the purpose of this invitation from the perspective of those who are suspicious of it, and how should one’s actions be guided by one’s reasoning? You can point students to some ways of answering the question, including research (e.g., New York Times, “Rove Returns, With Team, Planning G.O.P. Push,” Sept. 25, 2010).You might point out to students that they can think more effectively about any response by considering the purpose of the visit. If you think, for example, that by disrupting a speech you will allow some to claim that free speech only exists for progressive causes at Oberlin, and that this will then become part of a larger argument about how colleges and universities have become hostile to conservative views and that this is more reason why voters should turn out of office those who “pal around” with “extremists,” – if you believe this, than it would seem rather foolish at best to willingly walk into a trap that has been set for you. And this is the case for arguments on either side of the political spectrum – our task as teachers is to help students ask the kind of questions (and then determine the kinds of responses) that are most likely to be informed, informative, and productive.
5. Help your students think about what interest they have in this event, what interests the community has, and the dangers of assuming that one is acting in the “best interests” of the community even though you may be in the majority. Democracy, after all, is about more than majority rule; it is about minority rights.
6. Help your students clarify what they want to accomplish? Small (or large) groups can disrupt audiences. We’ve seen that play out in U.S. politics over the past two years (“You lie!”). Shutting down speech with which you disagree is an easy act, not a difficult one. Determining how to insure that your point of view is heard (and not just the disruption that you have caused) is much harder. As faculty, we need to help students accomplish what is difficult but productive, not what is easy and damaging.
Your role as a teacher and mentor is not to tell students what to think, but to help them think through issues and consequences and, if useful, arrive at alternatives. The fact that you teach math and not politics is irrelevant to the fact that we are all members of this community, charged with helping our students think not just as mathematicians and politicians, but as citizens.