At the core of a true liberal arts education is the guarantee that students will be immersed in—not just exposed to—the intellectual tensions and tendencies of human history. However, our classes should not be held wholly accountable to immerse us; we should hold ourselves accountable, in our interactions with one another.
And to this point, a lesson from professor Michael Brown, in his Communication, Policy, and Law class comes to mind. Brown believes it is the presence of disagreement that tells us we live in a free society—argument means presenting our different views, nothing more. For Brown, presenting dissenting opinions is an important thing. It is not a screaming match (necessarily) or argument for argument’s sake, but rather, the exchanging of ideas, and challenging a thought with a strong counter.
Debate makes us wiser and makes our ideas stronger.
It is unclear, though, how easy it is to find thoughtful dispute today at Emerson. Where, actually, is the disagreement? Be it in the classroom or on Facebook, many students seem unwilling to disagree with their peers. Perhaps because of the backlash they feel they might get. Where though, are the students who believe in smaller government? The students who don’t love Beyonce?
It is missing the point entirely, though, to look toward this uniformity as an issue of party affiliation, as a result of Emerson being an overwhelmingly liberal school. Our student body is made up of people from a multitude of cultures across the globe—the closet Emerson Republicans, students against drug legalization, people who don’t use social media—so surely we do not see eye-to-eye on everything.
But the practice of debating ideas seems to be a rarity on the corner of Boylston and Tremont. And that isn’t to say we aren’t opinionated. But debate cannot exist with the presence of only one opinion; two or more parties must present outlooks and have open minds to hearing the others.
If we constantly accepted the majority view, Rosa Parks would have gone to the back of the bus, Susan B. Anthony would have stayed at home on election day, and Isaac Newton would have never questioned why the apple hit him on the head.
Though it may seem intimidating, the rewards of a well-constructed argument are invaluable. For a school that prides itself on being progressive, we should be more reluctant toward accepting the student status quo. When a classmate makes a comment you do not agree with, don’t simply sit back in your chair and complain about it in 140 characters. Raise your hand and vocalize your view—debate.
This is not to say that Emerson needs to follow a CNN news model of diversifying thought, bringing along every conceivable viewpoint, absent any consideration of merit, or that students should shy away from agreeing with their peers.
But we must remember that homogeneity is truly suppressive not because it silences dissent, but because it represses the larger promise which the liberal arts uniquely hold.
It is not that we should relentlessly seek to oppose one another for the sake of debate. Rather, we should speak up for what we believe in, no matter how small, and perhaps more importantly, listen to the views we do not believe in. Because debate requires both of these things, and when done in a civil and logical manner, is a truly didactic thing.