Raising the Bar: Empowering Students to Change the World


Guest blogger Zachary R. Wood is a student at Williams College.

Yesterday, Ferentz Lafargue wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, arguing that student objection to bringing speakers with offensive views to campus is a sign of strength. In the piece, Lafargue makes several points with which I concur:

  1. “Students whose families are facing financial distress often feel guilty about engaging in any pursuit that is not alleviating their family’s hardships.”
  2. “For some students these debates are about far more than college; they represent yet another variable in trying to understand how and where they fit in society.”
  3. “…The truth of the matter is that “coddled” college students aren’t the problem.”

To be sure, Lafargue offers a thoughtful response to a complicated issue. However, there is a sense in which I find his argument facile. Indeed, as he observes, “the real culprits—on campuses and in the real world—are the persistent effects of homophobia, income inequality, misogyny, poverty, racism, sexism, white supremacy, and xenophobia.” But fighting these culprits involves more than just keeping people who offend students out of the spaces that they want to feel safe within. We can challenge viewpoints with which we vehemently disagree in a number of ways that do not require the cancellation of speakers. To be effective, we have to raise the bar and empower ourselves to create change in the real world by probing vexed issues of race and gender, pushing ourselves to clarify and communicate how we think about controversy.

More specifically, this entails asking ourselves tough questions:

Where do we draw the line on what should and should not be said on college campuses?

Given that John Derbyshire was disinvited from an event at Williams because he holds racist views, what would we do if there happened to be a student or professor on campus who agreed with something Derbyshire wrote in his controversial article, “The Talk”? Would that professor be censored, fired, or given a pass?

Would that student be suspended, ostracized, or would we push for the creation of speech codes that criminalize hate speech? How do we even define hate speech?

These are just some of the many questions that need to be considered if we want to create social change.

Lafargue posits that by pushing for Derbyshire’s disinvitation, students are learning a crucial skill: how to fight discrimination. But that logic doesn’t apply to dealing with discrimination everywhere.

Sure, we can disinvite speakers from Williams. But in the workplace, can we disinvite our bosses and co-workers from meetings if they offend us? In that situation, we could either quit working for that employer and walk out of the meeting, or we could stand up for ourselves and communicate our concerns, clarifying what we find offensive and why.

True enough, everyone doesn’t enjoy arguing about political issues, let alone arguing with someone who offends them. Every student should not be expected to want to argue with a racist speaker. And everyone need not respond to controversy in the same way.

For me, the issue arises not only when students interested in this form of uncomfortable learning are denied the opportunity to hear from someone like Derbyshire, but also when educators and administrators come up with reasons for why students should not have to deal with having someone like Derbyshire on campus for all of two and a half hours. As Lafargue perceptively notes, some college students face various personal, familial, and financial challenges that make their time on campus more difficult than that of others.

I am one of those students.

I’ve faced familial and financial challenges and many of the obstacles I’ve had to overcome in life have made me a stronger person. The last thing I want is for someone to think that because I have experienced significant hardships, I need to be protected from organized engagement with a purveyor of the “real culprits.” Educators and administrators should have more faith in students’ ability to deal with controversy responsibly, without resorting to cancellation. Williams students are at Williams, in part, because we can confront the prevalence of real culprits on campus and in our world.

Whether or not students would attend the event and discuss it afterwards, peaceably protest the event without disrupting it, or simply ignore it altogether is a matter of individual agency for all, and individual non-conformity for some. The problem is not coddled students. The problem is how some colleges have dealt with issues of inclusivity, discrimination, and free debate on their campuses thus far. The best way to deal with controversy is not to avoid it at all costs and make it go away as soon as possible when it arises.

If educators and administrators want to empower students to be agents for change in the real world, they should discourage banning speakers with offensive views and encourage students to exercise their own agency by dealing with controversies on campus as they see fit.


11 thoughts on “Raising the Bar: Empowering Students to Change the World

  1. You make some very good points, but the one that struck me most was when you mentioned meeting a purveyor of the real culprits.
    It’s not easy to get the ear of powerful persons who hold positions you disagree with. Colleges that invite such people to talk with students are doing something the students would have a hard time doing for themselves, and will have a hard time doing after they graduate – giving them a chance to hear and *be heard by* the people who are causing their problems.
    If my worst enemy came to campus I would want to be in the room with them, making my points in an environment where they couldn’t have me thrown out for refuting their arguments.

  2. the views Derbyshire holds are harmful, and we missed out on an opportunity to engage with them properly. but that opportunity would have come at a cost. like it or not, giving someone a platform to speak at the college signals a level of respect for what they have to say. it is more than simply an acknowledgement; it is preferential treatment. no amount of respect is appropriate for this man’s bigoted views. any at all would have betrayed students’ trust in the college and its administration. and Williams does not have a defense against the dark arts graduation requirement, so it is no one’s job to go around releasing demons on campus and inviting people to deal with them, especially when doing so can affect even students who would have no intention of interacting with them.

    • I don’t see why we should respect someone just for speaking at a college campus. As for “demons”, even if you trust the administration to define “demons” correctly, college campuses are not Harry Potter novels. There are no demonic spirits of evil who can control us unless we banish them from the ivory towers. The primary effect of allowing Derbyshire to speak is to remind us that racism still exists. That can be an upsetting reality, but that’s what a college education is all about: confronting upsetting realities, and not receiving protection spells from demons.

      • by inviting someone to speak at the college and paying a speaking fee, one is placing a value on their speaking. placing such a value signals respect.

        it may astonish you to learn that I did not mean “demons” literally, but rather as a stand-in for “thing that causes significant harm”. I don’t claim it has “control”, as you say, but rather that it has an appreciable effect.

        most Williams students are aware that racism exists. for many of them, being “confronted” by this “upsetting reality” does more to upset than to educate. for those who somehow missed the memo on racism, there are less harmful ways to get it across.

        and not everyone agrees with what you claim “a college education is all about”, and for those who don’t, it isn’t anyone’s job to try to force feed them a prescribed confrontation.

    • You may have missed the op-ed that this post is in response to, but the argument given there is directed against the “coddled college students” trope. This seems to be quite different from the argument you present that it is the responsibility of the administration to actively protect students from harmful speech. If students don’t want to be coddled, why would the administration risk losing their respect when a speaker is invited by a student group with no official affiliation with the college and receives no money from the college?

      A careful reading of the op-ed suggests that some students and administrators believe that the appropriate tool to combat harmful speech is to actively restrict other student’s freedoms and that this is the tool that they will be encouraged to use in the real world. I don’t believe this is an AAUP-sponsored policy, but I may be wrong.

  3. Williams is a part of the real world, and pressuring an administration into cancelling something is a real world tactic, used to get rid of a real world problem.

    • I love how the “real world” gets used to justify repression. (In the “real world,” controversial people get fired without a second thought.) The whole purpose of academic freedom is to make an unreal world of liberty and principles into a reality. That’s one reason why the “real world” defense is so dangerous: if leftists want to see universities run more like the “real world” of corporate America in order to remove controversial speakers, then the first ones on the firing line in the real world will be leftist speakers. The unreal world of academic freedom is a fragile thing: it tends to fall apart when you undermine its principles and start making exceptions left and right.

      • if you can’t see the clear difference between racism and leftism, and that one ought to be shut out while the other never will, then I’m done talking to you.

        • I can see a clear difference between leftism and racism. But do you trust administrators to do the same, to never imagine that critics of white supremacists are racist or that critics of Israel might be anti-Semitic? If you give the administration the power to shut out “racism,” I think it’s inherently wrong, but worse yet, there can be no guarantee that leftism never will be shut out on the same grounds.

          • I think you’re misunderstanding a little here. No one gave the administration this power, they just have it. They run the college, they decide who can and can’t be on campus. The college community will hold them accountable and make sure they use it responsibly. No problems with this so far.

    • It has been widely reported that the Derbyshire cancellation was not due to any external pressure on the administration, but the individual opinion of the College president. Of course, such acts of unchecked executive power are not unusual in the real world, but they set a precedent and have consequences. Just because you see no negative consequences does not mean they do not exist.

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