The only lesson that matters

The elephant in the room

College faculty have a reputation for being liberal. This is a reputation that, in many ways, they earn, and in some ways, seek out. However, it is also true that most colleges keep around one or two faculty members to provide the other side. In an oft-quoted column from 2003, The New York Times columnist David Brooks highlights Harvard University’s Harvey Mansfield, Princeton University’s Robert George and Yale University’s Donald Kagan as members of the illustrious club. Today, one might add Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama or New York University’s Richard Epstein as guaranteed sources of intellectual diversity on those campuses.

There is an important lesson though, in that. Assigning the name “conservative” to Professor Mansfield, George or Kagan means we can think uncritically about their positions and their words. It is the same for the other side. The fact that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is described as a socialist or that the late Howard Zinn was a liberal means that those opposite them are more comfortable ignoring or discrediting their argument on its face.

Thus is the problem with labels. Labels prevent critical thinking and permit people to give automated responses to even the most thoughtful arguments.

During my first weeks at CWRU, nearly three-and-a-half years ago, a professor who would become my mentor and friend instructed me to define my terms. Our initial conversation had revealed that I self-identified as a “conservative” with regard to my political opinions. Her response: Be more concrete and specific. What exactly does that mean?

She was absolutely right. I was using the label to avoid thinking critically about the issues in debate. I accepted positions on their face because they were “conservative.” Nearly four years later, with graduation staring down on me, I am no longer a conservative. Instead, I am a supporter of a smaller government. I, however, also believe that a welfare state is necessary to support those in need. I am believer in self-determination and individual choice. I think taxes could be higher. I support the Affordable Care Act. I support same-sex marriage. I desperately defend free speech and freedom of thought, even that which to some is worthless, hurtful or evil. However, even in that catalog there are more labels. Words that connote meaning to people that will let them discard what I might otherwise say. It is better than where we started.

More important than this, though, is that our response to labels is not merely conflict or assent, but rather more labels. Nowhere is this clearer than in our disagreements.

Idealist. Cynic. Bleeding Heart. Greedy. Bigot. Racist. Homophobe. Each of these words often stands on its own. It has not only a definition, but an association. Used in context, these words might have critical meaning. Without, they devalue conversation and allow discrimination.

There is also an opportunity cost. While permitting auto-responses, labeling distracts and removes the ability to engage in larger debate. This isn’t how to address someone. These are not the conversations about someone’s gender, sexuality or race—conversations that have become the “important” ones on this campus. Rather, these are the conversations about morals. Is there a moral right and wrong? What is our “grand strategy” for existence?

Assuming answers to these questions, while convenient, ignores the reality of our situation. Continued practice of this intellectual sin makes us complacent. Complacency drives mediocrity. That mediocrity, in this case, is distress at even the smallest entrée in personal world. The refusal to engage in the bigger questions leads us to reject viscerally even the most defensible attacks on our beliefs. We become immune to reason; we move to eliminate anything that threatens our very specific worldview.

It is fitting, perhaps, that this issue comes up now. As a student at Case Western Reserve University, I have long been dissatisfied with the school. In fact, this space has been devoted to pointing out some of the problems, in my view, this school faces. However, there has always been a larger problem lurking in the background. Behind the Facebook posts of frustrated students, behind the Friday evening frivolities of overworked engineers, the CWRU student body has long refused to engage in the moral conversation.

Instead of thinking critically, the student body is complacent. We are much more akin to simply assigning labels—oh, he’s an engineer; she’s a chemistry major—than we are to asking questions and conducting full conversations. When students encounter a position they disagree with, it is largely the case that we simply attach to it a derogatory label. It is a lazy alternative to education.

With all the diversity training and sustained dialogue that has attempted to educate students on the right and wrong beliefs to hold, we have lost the ability to critically examine and engage with the world around us. We claim to think beyond the possibilities of our own belief systems, yet students cower inside them afraid of the exposure to alternate, uncomfortable positions that exist outside. Our education has failed us.