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Fearlessness not fearfulness: fostering discourse at Bowdoin

May 5, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

By now, we’ve probably all heard about the recent events that unfolded at Middlebury when Charles Murray was invited to speak or the violent protests that arose when Milo Yiannopoulos was asked to speak at UC Berkeley. The issue of free and open discourse is now inextricably linked to college campuses and debated by the intellectuals that inhabit them. At Bowdoin, the inability for students to acknowledge the validity of opinions that do not align with their own signals a failure in an important aspect of our education.

Official statements from Bowdoin leaders on open discourse and intellectual tolerance directly contradict the reality of the academic environment here. President Rose, in his inaugural address, criticized academic intolerance. He pledged to uphold tenets of intellectual freedom at Bowdoin, and called upon us—students and faculty—to engage in the practice of “intellectual fearlessness.” It is up to us, he proclaimed, to create a campus safe enough to encourage the college’s mission of “full-throated intellectual discovery and discourse—which is most decidedly uncomfortable and unsafe.” How well have we achieved this goal of fostering an ideal academic environment? I say not well at all.

I am convinced that the discourse that exists on Bowdoin’s campus does not even slightly resemble the ideal image our President paints for us. Bowdoin’s academic climate more closely resembles one of intellectual fearfulness, rather than fearlessness, of rampant close mindedness rather than active intellectual discovery.  The intellectual environment here represents a new form of orthodoxy, one that presents its notion of virtue and quickly dismisses anything contradictory. Currently, Bowdoin’s culture re-inscribes what students, faculty and administrators already know and believe, rendering open discourse obsolete. Rose asserts that at its core, a liberal arts education is about leaning into discomfort. We are here to be challenged and to work to uncover the truth in all disciplines. Yet, many of Bowdoin’s students are confident they have already found it. They possess the keys to the truth, and those who challenge their idea of the truth, or, even worse, actively oppose it, are not only ignorant, they are immoral.

Bowdoin’s administration clearly recognizes there is a striking lack of differing opinions and honest debate here. The apparent lack of discourse undoubtedly drives Rose’s calls for intellectual fearlessness, and the organization of campus events with outside speakers does indeed succeed in sparking moments of conversation. However, real change will only occur in the classroom, with the support of Bowdoin’s faculty.

The campus climate following the presidential election is a fitting example of the intellectual fearfulness that prevails at Bowdoin. A large majority of students were devastated by the results, and in many classes, professors needed to decide how to best proceed. Some professors ended classes early; others allowed for class debate. For instance, in a government class on Political Parties in the United States, a professor fed students a variety of questions that attempted to get at the heart of the surprising conservative victory: ‘How could the liberal candidate have lost?’ ‘What sorts of theories could explain the conservative candidate’s extraordinary momentum?’ ‘Where do we go from here?’

It was in this class that I realized how dangerously one-sided discourse is here. One student pinned the election’s shocking results on the votes of uneducated, ‘white-trash,’ racist Americans. Another student conjured up a strikingly elitist explanation involving a divergence of ‘shared-truths.’ Those who voted for the president-elect, he argued, just did not understand the ‘correct’ truth about today’s world (a truth that is, to this student, ostensibly universal). And so, by voting for such a candidate, they, in fact, demonstrated that they do not understand reality; they live within a false truth. Fittingly, during this discussion, one student sporting a “Make America Great Again Hat” sat silently.

In response to my classmates’ hypotheses, I suggested that perhaps we needed to look beyond simple stereotypes and labels in attempting to explain the shocking results of this election.  Name-calling, I argued, would not help us understand what took place and how to best move forward. Apparently, the professor found this suggestion so profound that he later emailed me thanking me for having the courage to speak up and challenge my classmates—for embodying the “intellectual fearlessness” Rose so often praises.

Why was I lauded as courageous for simply suggesting that we look beyond the easy answer—in challenging the echo chambers of news, politics and, evidently, academia, that we live in today? Is it brave to merely acknowledge that a viewpoint has a fundamental right to exist, even if you do not agree with it? To attempt to understand from where that perspective comes? To acknowledge that someone else’s beliefs contain an inherent value? I believe Bowdoin has failed in its mission to challenge us to do these very things.

Intellectual fearfulness will have far-reaching consequences, if we allow it to prevail on Bowdoin’s campus, for the policing of political opinions now functions as a modern form of orthodoxy. In dismissing those with opposing views as ignorant and immoral, in asserting that we already possess “the truth,” and in turning political debates into moral ones, we don’t just fail to be intellectually fearless: we fail to demonstrate any intellect at all. There is work to be done, and it is only in the classroom, with the support of professors, that we can foster a genuine academic environment and begin to demonstrate real intellect.

Nancy Geduld is a member of the Class of 2017.

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One comment:

  1. Man with the Axe says:

    What a great essay. Well written and well-reasoned. I hope it was widely read.


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