By Tommy Druen
Duke University is getting it right.
Now, as a Kentuckian, I understand that I just lost a lot of readers. And those of you who have made it this far may simultaneously be trying to remember the difference between heresy and blasphemy. And while I may unintentionally be guilty of both at times, I ask you to stick with me here.
Although I may read more sports columns than any other topic, this is not one. So momentarily put the thoughts of Coach K, the Cameron Crazies and . . . *gasp* . . . “the shot” out of your mind and think about Duke University, the institution; one of the premier bastions of academic thought in our nation for nearly two hundred years.
This past week, I read an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by John Rose. Dr. Rose holds a PhD in theology and is a highly lauded professor in Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. The title of his piece was “How I Liberated My College Classroom.”
The issue of political biases in college classrooms has always interested me. As a college student who was politically active, I was always keenly aware I might need to temper my thoughts in case they conflicted with those of my professor. Fortunately, it was not really an issue for me, but I knew of others for which it was. So, Dr. Rose’s headline worked well and pulled me into reading the full piece.
I was surprised by what I read. Intentional or not, the word liberate has taken on a life of its own. I expected to read of a perceived liberation centered around race, gender or sexuality. I even thought, given the reputation of Duke’s divinity school, that it might be regarding liberation theology. And, frankly, had it been any of those topics, I might have found it interesting and appropriate, but expected. What it was, though, was much different. It was about the liberation of thought.
Now why should that surprise me? Haven’t college campuses, especially those in the higher echelon, been forums of free expression for over a millennium? Isn’t that the whole thought behind academic tenure; the freedom to ponder and say what could lead to improvement, regardless of current social pressures?
Ideally, yes. Yet, as we all know, college campuses have been the front lines of the American culture wars of the past fifty years. Like most times, there was no side with clean hands as this became more prevalent. Conservatives would attack the celebrity professor who said something they found distasteful on a news program. Liberals would boycott on-campus speeches by guests with whom they disagreed. And on it went, both sides digging their trenches deeper and shining brighter lights on buildings designed for no other, yet no greater, purpose than teaching late adolescents how to think.
This outside aggression led to increased anxiety. And, at a time when many are muddling through the pressures of academic challenges, career decisions and young romance, added anxiety is the last thing these young men and women need. So, they retreated. They created safe spaces where political thought outside the perceived norm was quelled. And when no one offers varied thought, the common perception is there is only one road towards progress.
This is where Dr. Rose and his class come in. Among the classes he teaches is one entitled Political Polarization. What he realized when talking to his students was they were self-censoring. They were not as likely to fear difference of thought compared to their professors as they were their fellow students.
To remove that obstacle, he laid out a few ground rules for class discussion. Primarily, there was no canceling. No matter what you think about your classmate’s opinion, there was to be no social or professional penalties. Secondly, they were to always assume thoughts are expressed with the purest of intentions. They talked about humility and charity. And then they delved into the current issues of the day. And, in the end, the conversations they had were frank, open and, more than anything, allowed students who had been dead set of their own beliefs to see viewpoints from a different side. Whether they changed their minds or not is irrelevant. What is important is that Dr. Rose created a climate of how a civil society is supposed to function.
While I, and the clear majority of those of you reading this, are not in college, that does not mean we cannot take lessons from Dr. Rose as well. How often do we revel in what only reinforces our preconceived thoughts? When was the last time you read a book, listened to a speech or watched a news program that differed from what you believe? When was the last time you had lunch with someone with whom you know you have political disagreement? When was the last time you assumed the person with whom you disagree was voicing their opinion with only the purest of intentions?
We have reached a point where we need to find the good in our fellow man and end the senseless bickering and hate over what truly are miniscule differences.
Justice William O. Douglas once said, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”
The disallowance of true and public discourse by the state was one iniquity that led to the founding of our nation, the first of its kind, in the 18th century. Let us not replicate it by a cultural stymie of freedom of thought and expression.
Tommy Druen is a native of Metcalfe County. He is a graduate of Centre College of Kentucky and is currently employed by the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission. He and his wife and two children reside in Georgetown, Kentucky.