Here we have a discussion, a “HigherEd Leaders Forum,” organized by The New York Times. The précis:
College campuses are struggling to balance respectful discussions about race and diversity with holding open conversations on controversial topics. Nicholas Christakis of Yale University, Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard Law School and Marvin Krislov, president of Oberlin College, are talking with Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times Magazine about the best framework for frank — and potentially explosive — conversations on campus?
You’ll remember Nicholas Christakis as the Yale sociologist who, along his wife Erika, was a housemaster at Silliman College at Yale. After Erika sent around an email saying that students perhaps shouldn’t be policing Halloween costumes so ardently, and warned about the dangers of free speech, the students started a horrible witch hunt that culiminated in the resignation of both Nicholas and Erika as resident masters (see my post about it here). Thus, although the 36-minute discussion turns out to be somewhat of a Lovefest, in which everybody professes love of diversity, of students, and a hatred of bigotry, Christakis, as a free speech advocate, is at odds with the other two discussants. You can sense the tension in the dialogue when he asks for a “liberal” rather than an “illiberal” multiculturalism and when he claims that many assertions about institutionalized racism are actually incidents between individuals—the so-called microaggressions.
The law professor, Annette Gordon-Reed, who won a Pulitzer Prize in History for her 2008 book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, agrees with everyone that all the students need to change in order to have meaningful dialogue, but that members of the “dominant culture” (I believe she means white people) are the ones that really have to change.
As for Krislove, he’s simply a weenie, saying nothing substantive except for “we have to listen to the students” over and over again. He is, of course, President of what is probably the most Regressive Leftist school in the U.S., Oberlin College in Ohio (see here and here).
What shocked me the most was the exchange below, which I’ve transcribed, between Christakis and Gordon-Reed. The man has moxie to even talk this way in such a discussion, but when he brings up Enlightenment values he’s slapped down by Gordon-Reed, who claims that “the Enlightenment created white supremacy.”
This is the first time I’ve heard such a claim, since of course racial bias long preceded the Enlightenment, and it was my understanding, as well as one thesis of Steve Pinker’s Better Angels Our Nature, that the tolerance that was part of the Englightenment helped dismantle racism, sexism, and other forms of human bias in the time since the eighteenth century. Here’s the exchange:
Christakis: “In my view the most profound moral learning takes place when we create an environment that allows the students to–we welcome everybody, everybody deserves to access these wonderful institutions, without question—but then we create an environment where they can learn from each other. There’s nothing like testing your ideas against another human being with a different experience, and who feels differently than you do, and who comes to you and says, ‘You know, I disagree with you.’ And they talk to each other; that’s a much better learning–it’s an authentic learning that takes place. And it’s vastly superior than any kind of edict that we can pass out, in my view. So I think we can articulate our principles, I think we can say, ‘You know, I don’t agree with this person, I’m a human being, too; I can express an opinion too. . . . I still think it’s better for the students to talk to each other about these types of topics. . .
I also think it’s very important, I think there’s a lot of sloppy thinking about the distinction between words and actions, and we spent 400 years of the Enlightenment to draw a distinction between that. I think it’s a very bright-line distinction between that, between words and actions, and I think that if we start conflating words and actions we go down a very dangerous, slippery path. . . So I think it’s very important when the student saya, ‘What you said was violent,’ I think that’s wrong. I think we say to the student that it was repugnant, it was wrong, it hurts your feelings, I disagree with it. And words are not the same thing as violence and I think we need to draw a distinction between those, in my view.”
Gordon-Reed. “It’s a tough one. I mean the Enlightenment has its good side and its bad side. The Enlightenment created white supremacy, racial hierarchies. It did that. . .”
Maybe I’m missing something, but I think that Gordon-Reed’s Enlightenment-dissing is way off the mark.