Like many, many people, I have been transfixed by the recent events on college campuses. In some cases, it has felt even more personal this time around, as my wife and children are St. Louis natives, and I lived there from 1987-2011. The University of Missouri (Mizzou) is my wife’s undergraduate alma mater, and she still speaks fondly of her college days in Columbia, MO. For that reason, we have watched and discussed the news with a combination of avid interest and sadness, but unfortunately, no surprise. Like the state of Missouri itself, and for that matter the rest of the United States, Mizzou has had a tortured history of race relations. (Personal disclaimer: when my wife and I met back in 1989, she was staffing a think tank commission that produced what has been considered the definitive study on the history of racial polarization in St. Louis.)
As centers of intellectual thought and youthful ideological passion, college campuses serve as the venues where our country’s most hotly contested issues can be debated. (One of my greatest joys as a secondary educator is hearing from alumni about the activities and the discussions in which they are involved as they wrestle with these topics.) Consequently, we should not be surprised when places like Mizzou or Yale become the locus for protests on issues like race or gender.
Unfortunately, like the rest of our country at times, the discourse around these fundamental issues on campuses can be raw and uncivil. A recent New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof, “Mizzou, Yale and Free Speech,” points out the difficulty of bridging the gap between banning hate speech and providing a venue for engaging intellectual discourse that allows for a variety of voices.
As Kristof makes clear, colleges that proclaim a commitment to diversity and inclusivity have a responsibility to create a safe and equitable environment for everyone. “The protesters at Mizzou and Yale and elsewhere make a legitimate point: Universities should work harder to make all students feel they are safe and belong. Members of minorities — whether black or transgender or (on many campuses) evangelical conservatives — should be able to feel a part of campus, not feel mocked in their own community.” While much has been done in this area, there is still great work to do in creating campuses where all students feel included and at home.
However, as Kristof also points out, colleges must be places where open and respectful intellectual discourse can occur, so students’ ideas can be challenged and then either reaffirmed or changed. Kristof writes, “We should cherish all kinds of diversity, including the presence of conservatives to infuriate us liberals and make us uncomfortable. Education is about stretching muscles, and that’s painful in the gym and in the lecture hall.”
More and more often in secondary schools, we are seeing the debates that rage on college campuses come up in our discussions, and as difficult as it may be, we should welcome those dialogues in a developmentally-appropriate manner that reflects the wide age range of our students. We disserve our students if we hide our heads in the sand and pretend that they are not having these same conversations; however, we must recognize that how we talk about these issues with our 12-year-old 6th graders is very different than how we do it with our students who are less than a year away from college.
Consequently, we must provide a venue that makes it safe for our students to engage in meaningful discourse. We do this by providing clear guidelines and parameters for discussion; for example, we can say that racist, sexist, and homophobic epithets are wrong and have no place in our community. Once we have set our ground rules, we can then create opportunities for conversation where all voices, regardless of one’s political affiliation, can be heard, respected, and challenged in a respectful manner that encourages conversation among people of differing opinions. In this way, we help our students to become not only open-minded young men and women prepared for the rigors of college, but also active and engaged citizens who are ready to participate in a democracy.