SHORT TAKES


June 6, 2007

Praising Discomfort at Middlebury

Stop the presses. The president of a well-known college has actually come out for diversity of ideas, rather than just the narrow form of diversity prized on campus (skin color, gender, sexual orientation). In a baccalaureate address at Middlebury College's graduation, President Ronald D. Liebowitz talked about the "value of discomfort" in listening to and grappling with new ideas. Liebowitz said, "If the wariness about discomfort is stronger than the desire to hear different viewpoints because engaging difference is uncomfortable, then the quest for diversity is hollow, no matter what the demographic statistics on a campus reflect." If the pursuit of diversity is to be intellectually defensible, he said, Middlebury can't just exchange one orthodoxy for another.

At colleges, "discomfort" is a familiar buzzword justifying censorship or punishment for offending the sensibilities of students designated as "underrepresented." That's why coming out in favor of discomfort is a near-heresy in the campus monoculture.

Some students objected to Bill Clinton as this year's commencement speaker, while a larger and more irritated group objected to Middlebury's endowed professorship in American history and culture honoring William Rehnquist. Liebowitz noted that some members of minority groups on campus felt "invisible and disrespected" by the decision to honor Rehnquist and considered it an offense against diversity. Indignant objections to conservative supreme court judges are an old story on campus, including attempts to boycott Antonin Scalia at Amherst and Clarence Thomas at the University of North Carolina Law School.

Some objectors to the Rehnquist professorship claimed that the goal of a liberal education should be to advance social change, and since Rehnquist failed this test, he should not be honored. "I do not share in that narrow definition of a liberal education," Liebowitz said. "Rather, liberal education must be first and foremost about ensuring a broad range of views and opinion in the classrooms and across campus..." Good idea. Will it apply to the hiring of professors as well?

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