The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Column: Commitment to our values and the free exchange of ideas

One of the most important things that a college or university does is promote intellectual curiosity and tolerance. At the same time, colleges also have values and identities that they wish to preserve and foster. Notre Dame University, for instance, claims its Catholic identity proudly. However, it has invited President Obama, who differs from Church teachings on several issues, to be the commencement speaker. Can these differences be reconciled?

I can’t speak for Notre Dame, but at Grinnell this would not be a contradiction. While we have other values to which we are committed, we also encourage and support the free exchange of ideas in and outside of the classroom. But is this balancing always successful? In my 11 years as president I have dealt with complaints that involve the tension in accommodating our values and our commitment to free and open discourse. A number of our conservative alumni complain that campus discourse is entirely one-sided, meaning politically liberal. Similarly, we have occasionally witnessed episodes of free speech that were said to denigrate a group or groups of people here on campus. Sometimes this has bordered on “hate” speech and other times it has been directed against those not usually the subject of hate speech. Finally, I have also heard from students who feel constrained in what they can say or discuss about some sensitive issues.

In a similar vein, recent attention has been focused on middle and high school textbooks and their portrayal of religious, historical and geopolitical issues. Are the Palestinians slighted or is the opposite true? Is Christianity denigrated? Speech is of course not only oral but includes newspapers, books, and live and digital media. What obligations do we have when expressing ourselves to try and be fair and can we simultaneously feel comfortable presenting our own beliefs and values? The weakening of broad-based newspapers coincides with the growth of narrow and opinion-focused digital and visual media and is perhaps contributing to our sense of unease about a possible loss of balance and open-mindedness.

There are issues that should not be the subject of public discourse. The health situation of an individual student comes to mind, and other similar confidential matters. That a particular exercise of speech simply makes someone uncomfortable cannot be the test of whether that speech should be banned. Human beings have to make judgments every day about appropriate behavior and while we encourage and need free speech we should all be mindful of the situations of those around us and what public discourse might mean.

While I don’t have a simple answer to this set of problems and concerns, I do believe that educational institutions have to be particularly zealous in these times to preserve and protect free expression and open inquiry on the issues of the day and the fundamental questions of human life. Faculty and students need to feel free in the classroom to disagree with the dominant opinion of a group, a place, or a time. Our views and values are molded, changed, and reformed in the process of being exposed to differing views or entirely new perspectives and the experience of engaging in these differences is a central feature of a liberal arts education.

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