The Freedom of Inquiry

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Carol QuillenTo grow as intellectuals and human beings, our students must engage with views that differ from their own. A recent national movement to ensure that students feel safe, however, has questioned the classroom use of potentially upsetting material. Perhaps, this movement contends, some texts are too disturbing for some students to confront. These materials should be labeled with warnings or should be made optional. Perhaps students should always be given the option to leave a class discussion if they find the conversation too difficult.

In order for Davidson students—for all of our nation’s students—to reach their highest potential, they must feel welcome in the classroom and equally valued by their instructors. Yet if our students consistently opt out whenever their pursuit of knowledge takes an uncomfortable turn, they will never expand their capacities for critical thought. And it is precisely these capacities that will empower them, over the course of their lives, to deal with painful experiences, to confront moral challenges bravely, and to stand strong against injustice.

During my years spent as a professor, administrator and mentor, many students have aired their concerns about a classroom environment—concerns that required considerable bravery to share. Their instructors, these students told me, said or did or implied something, usually in an off-hand way, that marginalized some members of the class. Maybe it was a generalization about how women think, or a comment about “illegal” immigrants, or an assumption that all human beings are heterosexual. Such comments have no place in a classroom that seeks to engage all students equally in the free pursuit of knowledge and insight. Furthermore, because these comments are made so casually, outside of any formal class discussion, they are very difficult to call out. Students feel powerless to do anything about it.

This points to a critical distinction, yet to be made in the current debate over safe learning, between the challenges posed by extracurricular forces—a professor’s comment, a fellow student’s action during or outside of class—and the challenges raised by the curriculum itself.

When students are ready to participate, and instructors create open settings for debate and discourse, a class should be free to tackle the most challenging questions and to confront the tragic realities of our history. As a professor, I taught material that expressed abhorrent views (defenses of slavery, for example) and material that dealt with racial and sexual violence (Toni Morrison’s Beloved). I understand that personal experiences make it difficult for some students to confront these topics. While we must keep in mind that all of us bear the scars of our past, we cannot, in a misguided quest for comfort, compromise the authentic pursuit of inquiry through which students develop as critical thinkers equipped to confront the challenges they will face once they leave our campus.

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About Author

Carol Quillen

Davidson College President Carol Quillen has engaged the college community in reimagining the liberal arts experience within the changing landscape of higher education and an increasingly interconnected world. Quillen became the 18th president of Davidson College on Aug. 1, 2011.

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