Universities Should Teach Students to Want to Hear Their Opponents

(p. A21) On April 8, 1991, when I was a sophomore at Brown University, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia came to campus to speak. Conservatives allegedly existed at Brown, but the school was as true to its left-leaning reputation then as it is now.

. . .

That April evening of Scalia’s talk, I lined up with my anti-Helms T-shirt on. I barely made it into a back row of the packed auditorium, where I awaited what would surely be a triumphant Q. and A. session. Once Scalia finished and we the righteous had a chance to speak truth to the evil one, we would rip apart his so-called originalism, his hypocrisies, his imperiousness. We were champing at the bit to have our say.

And then he wiped the floor with us. In answer to our indignant questions, he calmly cited rebutting cases. We fulminated and he reasoned, and when we seethed he lobbed back with charm. Within the hermetic bubble of my liberal upbringing and education, it had never occurred to me that even when finally presented with The Truth, someone from the other side could prevail. I’d been certain we would humiliate him. Instead, I left humbled.

. . .

According to “Brown University: A Short History,” by Janet M. Phillips, Vartan Gregorian, the school’s president when I attended, “bucked the trend of ‘political correctness’ to keep the Brown community hospitable to a wide range of views.” He invited not only Scalia but also the left-wing academic and activist Angela Davis, to “ensure a steady flow of diverse views and intellectual debate.” Gregorian, who died in 2021, Phillips wrote, “prided himself on the fact that during his tenure no speech, however controversial, was cut short by protest.”

We know universities can do a better job of preventing one form of speech from inhibiting another. The harder task, but perhaps the more important lesson, will be teaching students not to want to do so. They shouldn’t avoid opportunities to hear other perspectives but should actively seek them out and reckon with the humbling fact that what they already know — or think they already know — may not be all there is to know. Isn’t that, after all, precisely what learning is about?

For the full commentary, see:

Pamela Paul. “The Biggest Loss on Campus? Listening.” The New York Times (Friday, March 31, 2023): A21.

(Note: ellipses added. In the original last paragraph, the words “want” and “all” are in italics.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 30, 2023, and has the title “The Most Profound Loss on Campus Isn’t Free Speech. It’s Listening.”)

The book on Brown University mentioned above is:

Phillips, Janet M. Brown University, a Short History. Providence, RI: Brown University, Office of University Relations, 1992.

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