McDavid: Cherry-Picking the Problem

by Michael McDavid | 5/13/15 7:15pm

The College’s mission statement reads in part, “Dartmouth College educates the most promising students and prepares them for a lifetime of learning and of responsible leadership,” and its core values include “support[ing] the vigorous and open debate of ideas.” If the College and its students are to embrace a liberal arts education — a broad education that provides students with knowledge of a wide range of topics, an education that will equip young people with the skills to be engaged, responsible citizens of the world — then we ought to do a better job of creating spaces to consider opposing opinions and viewpoints.

In recent years a debate has cropped up around college students’ apparent predilection for avoiding “offensive ideas.” In publications such as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, opinion columnists have bemoaned the infantilizing tendency of universities to shut down transgressive or offensive speech and writing. Often such commentators refer to the issue through the lens of political correctness. They see this tendency as an extension of political correctness, as a bastardization of the perfectly legitimate idea that we should consider how our words and actions affect those around us. There is some merit to being sensitive, especially at Dartmouth.

A liberal arts education is meant to prepare us to be citizens of the world, but it is not exactly easy to say what that means. I think that it must and does mean something more than preparing us for a job or a career. We could go to trade school or, perhaps more realistically, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, but at Dartmouth, engineers and other students with highly specific tracks are required to fulfill distributive requirements. We want to educate the whole person.

Enough ink has been spilled in defense of the liberal arts education, but I will quickly add that a broad education is undeniably important. Especially if the College aims to continue creating world leaders — leaders of not only banks and businesses but also of states and people, leaders in thought and theory — then it must continue educating the entire person. The world is complex, and when leaders make decisions they do not do so in a vacuum. Understanding the myriad concerns and pressures on the lives of constituents, shareholders or employees is not a trifling matter. Understanding that cultural forces act on people’s lives in real and tangible ways is not a luxury. We need people who see the world in all its complexity.

Any tendency to censor offensive or problematic ideas and speech, then, is antithetical to the ideal of the liberal arts education. We must embrace the marketplace of ideas — the concept that, in a society that protects free speech, the best and most valuable ideas will rise to the top, while the worst and least valuable will be discarded. We have to trust that, given the freedom to choose, students will identify those ideas that have value.

But on the national stage, this conversation has been too focused on one side of the political spectrum. Critics have tended to accuse universities of creating a safe haven for liberal ideas at the expense of those who disagree. There is certainly some validity to this argument, but I do not want to discuss institutional politics at this moment. Of greater importance is how we, the students, conceive of our place in this issue.

I think we have a tendency to limit our ability or will to consider opposing viewpoints, especially those that offend or confront us, regardless of political and cultural considerations. I am not suggesting that we all have to agree, but we do all have to be willing to listen. If people shout their opinions at you in an aggressive or hostile manner, then you can disagree and be offended. You should not, however, ignore them.

Mutual respect is, of course, important to creating and sustaining meaningful dialogue, and there is no doubt that we can all be better in that regard. But we must also try to listen and consider the perspectives of others, not because we are all Dartmouth students, but because we are all people. We have to be more honest with ourselves about how seriously and meaningfully we are considering the viewpoints of those with whom we differ. We have to do a better job.