Constructive Criticism

by Charles Clark '11 | 11/22/09 11:00pm

I think that I will spark little controversy by describing Dartmouth's environment as pluralistic and academic. Our college brings together people who differ in every respect of geography and circumstance and encourages them to engage substantively with ideas and to pursue knowledge. At Dartmouth, diversity and scholastic excellence are mainstream values. Those who do not share them are relegated to the fringe of our small society. I doubt that anyone will bother to dispute these observations. But I would like to raise a more controversial question: What happens when our academic pursuit of knowledge collides with our pluralism?

There is no denying that with the full spectrum of gender, race and class on campus, there is an equally broad diversity of opinion and ideology. Fundamental disagreements about everything from the role of government in the economy to the meaning of life are ensured by our disparate perspectives. Most of the time, we interact with one another comfortably enough. We can go about our daily routines and, like polite company, avoid the subjects of politics, money and religion. We might even engage with each other intellectually, provided that the topic of discussion is sufficiently abstract. But we live with an uneasy awareness of our silent disagreements. We tend to observe the unwritten law: "It is forbidden to put anyone's personal beliefs under the microscope."

Sometimes we break this law. If the personal beliefs in question are held with emotional conviction, the outcome can be disastrous. Anger and frustration transform conversation into a verbal sparring match. Poorly reasoned, impassioned arguments give way to personal attacks. Experiences of this quality teach us to keep our mouths shut, smile and nod. But crossing the ideological DMZ can also be productive. Intellectual engagement with a conflict of opinion can synthesize new understandings. Better relationships and better conversations can come out of a respectful debate. Personally, I believe that this reward is worth the risk. If anywhere, it is in the pluralistic and academic environment of Dartmouth that we should apply a high standard of intellectual rigor to the ideological products of our personal backgrounds. To do otherwise violates any standard of free inquiry.

Several events last week impressed upon me the necessity of honest, intellectual approaches to the ideological disagreements that arise from diversity, particularly with respect to religion. I was cautiously optimistic about the reception of Justin Murray's column ("An Intolerable Situation," Nov. 17), in which he called for "a taboo-free Dartmouth." I agreed that "respectful people need not fear discussion." While I found his position on tolerance somewhat ambiguous, I welcomed his effort to deny scoffers its cover. My optimism suffered something of a setback with the publication of Wednesday's "The Still North" comic, an ad hominem attack that characterized Murray as credulous, paranoid and inarticulate. Notably, this is the second of Drew Lerman's comics published by The Dartmouth to have lampooned a vocal Catholic for his beliefs ("The Still North," Nov. 19, 2008). To be clear, it is not Lerman's intolerance to which I object, but his anti-intellectualism. Childish caricature is no substitute for rational discourse. While Lerman cannot be accused of hiding behind tolerance, his insubstantial commentary is a discredit to his position, and he would be better served by responding to Murray's claims in proper academic fashion.

No more excusable than Lerman's ad hominem tactic was the bait-and-switch perpetrated the same day by followers of anti-evolutionist Ray Comfort. Many of you no doubt accepted a copy of "The Origin of Species," only to find that the "Special Introduction" gradually transitioned from historical background to pseudoscientific criticism to a religious tract with all the subtlety and intellectual rigor of a televangelist. As someone deeply committed to the compatibility of faith and reason, I find such distortions of Christian intellectualism thoroughly disheartening. False advertising and intellectually bankrupt rhetoric have no place in our pluralistic academic environment. Religious claims should not be exceptions to the rule of intellectual responsibility. Beliefs have the right to be questioned. Whether in favor of a particular tradition or in opposition to all traditions, religious claims are a vital influence on students' thought. They therefore merit thorough investigation. According to pluralistic standards, we all have a right to our opinions. According to academic standards, others have a right to challenge them. We must confidently assert that our many differences can find common expression in rational discussion and respectful debate.

**Charles Clark '11 is a guest columnist and Editor-in-Chief of the Dartmouth Apologia.*