My Squelched Dream Of Intellectual Freedom

It was shockingly warm for late October in Boston, and I decided to hold my college class outside, on the library’s rooftop. There’s something magical about that rooftop. On a clear day, sky, city, and sun are all visible, and students often settle into deep yet comfortable conversation as they savor the novelty of a different location. Everything seemed perfect for our discussion about a boy named Cedric Jennings, hero of Ron Suskind’s nonfiction account of Cedric’s life: A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League.

One intriguing section of the book describes Cedric’s early application and acceptance to Brown University, despite his high school’s inner city status and his notably low standardized test scores. For homework, I asked the students to consider whether they would have recommended accepting him, if they had been admissions officers at the time. In this particular group, some wanted Cedric in, but many others — more than usual in my classes at mostly liberal Tufts University — were hesitant. Some worried that Cedric wouldn’t succeed academically, and thought he’d be better off at a somewhat less selective school. Others felt his acceptance was unfair. They knew many people who had been rejected from similar schools, and Cedric just didn’t impress them enough to make the cut. In their minds, nothing about him compensated for the low test scores. One student thought affirmative action should be based on social class, not race per se, and several others jumped in with enthusiasm about the comment, saying that was just how they’d always felt.

The conversation became involved, but it struck me as quite friendly, with people on both sides expressing their thoughts and listening to other students’ ideas with interest and openness. I encouraged discussion, and praised people for being honest and thoughtful in their comments. When class ended, I felt satisfied that the students had learned, explored, and analyzed. The diversity of opinion catalyzed all of that, and I was glad it had surfaced.

That evening, I received an email from a student in the class, telling me she was horrified that I had allowed her peers to express opposition to affirmative action. This never would have happened in any of her other courses, she said, and she was in shock. She told me that the students opposing Cedric’s acceptance were ignorant of all kinds of relevant factors, and I should have quieted them down. This young woman feared that my classroom was not a “safe space,” and she wanted me to understand that she was taking the matter to a dean. I don’t want to share specific details, but it might help to know that she comes from a background that typically does fall under the rubric of affirmative action, and, before Tufts, she attended an elite boarding school that would have offered a radically different experience from Cedric’s inner city high school.

Needless to say, I was a bit nervous, but I told myself that I had simply facilitated a class that included many different points of view. How could a mature professional — a dean — fault me for that? I did indeed hear from a dean the next day. She emailed that my student had been in and was under serious emotional distress because of comments other students in my class had made. The dean hoped that I would cut this young woman some slack. I did, of course, granting her extensions throughout the semester.

This student was actually a strong and engaging writer, and she wound up with a fairly high grade in the class. When she and I spoke directly about her reaction, I told her I believed that college should offer a chance to learn about all kinds of opinions. If you’re never challenged, you never grow. For that matter, if she truly wants to change the world, she needs to engage with the world, including people whose ideas differ from hers. Those who agree with her are already on her side. Those who don’t will only listen to her views if she listens to theirs. If she tries to get them silenced, they will resent the silencers, and no one will learn a thing beyond the need to keep expressed thoughts within a narrow band during public activities like classes. Class would become useless, a place where we can never be sure what anyone thinks, because so many views are beyond the pale of acceptability.

Her expression seemed sullen. Maybe she’s rethought since then, after the heat of the experience died down.

Though this happened a good few semesters ago, the memory still chills me when I think about it. I was gratified and heartened that the dean saw no reason to censure me; she simply wanted me to realize that my student was upset, and of course I wanted to know that. But the mere fact that I was nervous — that I could imagine a scenario where that class discussion could get me into trouble — suggests to me that much is wrong with our seemingly open and liberal universities, and with the larger culture that supports them.

Many years before, I was rebuked for my own ideas in a college class. During my freshman year at Brown University, one of my professors was explaining why it was absurd to think that races differ in average intelligence. Most of his points made perfect sense to me, but I liked playing with ideas and sharing them as I thought. I was brand new to the college scene and had not gone to a high school with much political passion… which made it pretty safe to express most ideas, since there was little risk of gravely offending anyone.

So I raised my hand and said something like: “This is all really interesting, but I’m just thinking… it’s pretty clear that certain behaviors in mothers might affect a fetus’ brain development. If, because of various factors, pregnant women in certain racial groups are disproportionately likely to abuse certain drugs, maybe their kids will be more likely to have related cognitive problems than kids from other races. I’m not saying it’s always or typically true. I’m just saying it might affect overall averages, probably in a pretty small way. I don’t even have specific ideas on which races might be more or less likely to abuse drugs. I’m just throwing the possibility of differences out there, since race can be linked to culture and behavior. For that matter, we know that racial background can be genetically correlated to things that have nothing to do with race. For instance, African Americans are more likely than Caucasians to have high blood pressure, all other things being equal. Just like the forces that lead to high blood pressure are partly genetic, maybe neurological structures that influence intelligence are somewhat genetic. In fact, I think most believe that’s true. So it could be that we’d see small differences in that aspect of brain structure if we looked at large-scale averages among different races, just like we see differences in rates of hypertension. None of this would say anything about individual people, of course.”

It was many years ago, so I can’t reproduce an exact quote, but I remember being very careful with my words and wanting to make sure I clarified the nuances of my speculations, including the likelihood that the overall differences would be small, and would say nothing about the intelligence of any individual from any group. I share these thoughts not to defend them; it’s entirely likely that geneticists, public health people, epidemiologists, neurologists, and others with expertise in these areas would shoot them down with very good reason. I was just a kid playing with ideas. Thing is, I loved playing with ideas. The chance to play with ideas was one of the main reasons I was so excited about college.

The professor looked at me, quietly shocked, and didn’t engage with my points. And, you know, I’m sure I do all kinds of things spur-of-the-moment that aren’t ideal when I’m teaching, so I don’t hold it against him. But many of the students shot me dirty looks. Later on, if I saw them outside of class, they turned away and didn’t say hi. For the next few sessions, I could feel the bad energy; many of my classmates didn’t really want to talk to me.

Thankfully, the sour energy dissipated and I wound up enjoying the class and many of the people in it. But I learned something huge — college was not a place to honestly and openly play with ideas. I filled in the gaps pretty quickly: my speculations could have dangerous ramifications, and there was no real use in pursuing them. Even so, it would have been helpful to me if people had engaged with my thoughts and taken them seriously, perhaps explaining why it wasn’t wise to move ahead with them. Silencing me was a blow. Afterwards, I modulated my thoughts very carefully while on campus. It was probably a great life lesson; I learned to get along with the people around me.

Sadly, though, my dream of a true life of the mind never materialized, because I knew that certain ideas were simply off limits, never to be expressed. I would like to resurrect that dream somewhat now that I teach my own classes. I want my students to play with ideas, and to say what they’re really thinking. To me, that’s the whole point of having a class that involves discussion among many different people.

In our current political climate, with anger and resentment raging from all sides, I fear that openness will be even harder to find and cultivate in colleges and universities. A recent student told me that one of his professors sent a petition to all of her students, imploring them to sign for the sake of the national good and suggesting that they surely all agreed with the goals behind it. I’m not sure what the petition entailed, but apparently it had something to do with anger about Trump. And it makes perfect sense that a passionate college professor might feel rage about Trump, but she should not assume that all of her students share her reactions. What kind of conversation could she possibly inspire about the election, after making that kind of assumption public? Certainly not one that allows for honest playing with ideas beyond a slim window of acceptable thoughts.

And it all goes far beyond our college campuses. Recently, the owners of an Italian restaurant in Honolulu posted a sign outside their business, warning: “If you voted for Trump you can not eat here! No Nazis.” The discussions among many in my circles unnerved me even more than the sign itself. Many I know found the sign perfectly OK, likening it to keeping people whose ideas horrify you away from a dinner party in your home. But a restaurant isn’t a private party; the whole point is to open your food and hospitality to the public. It’s fine, and even wonderful, to share your views if you’re passionate about them, but closing yourself and your professional skills off from those whose views diverge from yours, no matter how severely, makes for a starkly divided world where different kinds of people cannot interact and learn from each other.

Of course, extremists on the other side have tended towards awfulness even more chilling, harassing vulnerable people on the streets in Trump’s name and spewing hateful bigotry. But what about all those non-extremists: people who voted for one candidate or the other because they were trying to do the right thing for themselves and the people they care about? Maybe their decisions were misguided, but they won’t ever learn or grow if those with different views won’t talk to them or acknowledge them as human beings with feeling hearts and working minds.

People with strong views tend towards many fabulous qualities. They have vision and energy and they want to change the world according to deeply held ideals. But, as I told my student who complained to the dean, changing the world requires convincing people who don’t naturally agree with you. It involves enticing people to see things your way. There’s a delicate art to that kind of influence, and genuine respect for people whose ideas differ from yours is key.

I’ll share a relevant tidbit about myself: I’m not very political; I’d much rather delve into spiritual questions or intimate personal experiences with a group of friends than debate politics. I have all sorts of feelings about many different issues, and I don’t place myself in any particular overall camp. But many of my ideas do tend towards the liberal side of the spectrum. I’m passionate about moving beyond standard expectations for gender identity and sexuality. I wish everyone could receive comfortable living wages whether or not they work at a career deemed necessary or useful by the larger culture. In many ways, those who like categories might put many of my views in the “progressive” slot.

And yet, given my recent experiences, which include severe online bullying for sharing that I wasn’t terrified of Trump’s incoming administration despite my extreme distaste for his personality and values, I kind of cringe when I get invited to events billed as “progressive” or something similar. I fear that, if I went, I’d be up against a closed-mindedness that is antithetical to everything I feel as I move forward in the world, wanting to learn from as many different people as I can while sharing my own candid thoughts. Those who tried so hard to convince me to agree with them decisively turned me against the culture they tend to encourage.

So, as usual, I’m out here on my own, not relating to any particular group, but wanting to explore everyone’s ideas with excitement and warmth. Talk to me. I would love it, and I would never try to shut you up. Is it too bold to ask you for the same courtesy? I so hope it’s not.

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