Last week’s discussion between Frank Bruni and Arthur C. Brooks missed the mark. Déjà vu? A bit.
Although the discussion proved markedly more substantive than last year’s “debate” between Nicholas Kristof and Jason Riley, ultimately the night suffered from many of the same problems that year’s discussion had.
First, Bruni and Brooks simply do not disagree on fundamental political questions. Although they clashed briefly over the sincerity of some conservatives’ economic beliefs, or whether Google made a savvy business decision when it fired a programmer who made known his beliefs on the biological differences between men and women, neither challenged the basic premises of the other’s politics.
The event was billed as a model of connecting across difference but Brooks and Bruni failed to capture the complexity and difficulty of doing so for much of the college’s student body.
Bruni’s center-left politics were not representative of the more progressive political beliefs that many students hold. A Bernie Sanders-esque democrat would have supplied a more appropriate counterpoint to Brooks’ free-market conservatism.
In addition, the discussion did not address many of the social issues, such as equity in terms of race, class and power that occupy students’ minds today.
Despite these problems, these debates between high-profile public intellectuals can only do so much to solve the problem that they implicitly seek to address. It is true that at Bowdoin, like at many other colleges, conservative students feel hesitance voicing their opinions but, this and last year’s events—which were planned concurrently—appear to have been aimed more at crafting the appearance of engagement across difference rather than rigorously pursuing that engagement.
There are many ways to do this that do not involve paying large sums of money to the featured speakers.
Many students cited the post-talk discussion in Thorne as the most rewarding and fruitful part of the evening. Granted space and a sensitivity towards political differences, the event gave students from all political beliefs an opportunity to share and connect in a way that does not normally happen in our lives here—airing the viewpoints that exist within the student body itself is an important step in making space for conservative voices. Although a keynote event can help to spur these discussions, it is not the only possible means.
Other “What Matters” events, like the discussion of ideological diversity at Bowdoin, moderated by Professor of Government Paul Franco last February, or a professor panel held in spring 2016 on freedom of expression, have drawn sizeable crowds and spurred meaningful discussion. Events like these show that the College does not have to reach for A-list public intellectuals to enliven campus discussion but rather can simply engage those already within our community. At our best, we can use these discussions to embrace the messiness and complexities of each other’s ideas to better understand one another.