Greene: Lessons in Extremism

Sep 6, 2017

Colleges are taking considerable heat these days. Some say they’re obsolete, since a degree won’t guarantee a high paying job at graduation. Others think they harbor spoiled, violent students who victimize speakers with whom they disagree.

At its best, college should be a safe place to learn to think critically, check facts and evaluate sources. But figuring out one’s beliefs can be an awkward business, with false starts and dead ends - so awkward, in fact, that it’s becoming a real challenge to keep college campuses safe for intellectual inquiry.

Last year at Middlebury, students protested Charles Murray, a controversial political scientist who espouses what’s often called “scientific racism”. As a result, Allison Stanger, the professor of International Politics and Economics who invited Murray, was injured and seventy-six students were disciplined.

Michael Sheridan, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Middlebury, says the student protests were against the normalizing of extremism. The students thought it was wrong to engage someone whose scholarship is questionable, and whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has called a white nationalist, which Stanger disputes. Murray’s visit was sponsored by the campus chapter of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative organization that funds sending speakers to campuses.

Newfane resident Ken Estey is Associate Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College. He says the normal methods of discussion simply aren’t possible with extremists. Many are actually trained to shut down inquiry and provoke violence.

Estey says his Political Science Department will endorse visits by anyone if requested by student groups – as long as they become springboards for classroom analysis. Students are prepared for what’s coming and after the speaker leaves, the ideas presented are debated. He says it’s also important to understand that an exchange of ideas is not everyone’s goal.

After Charlottesville, Michael Sheridan agrees on the need to plan for trouble. He says, “We can’t just operate ‘normally’ thinking that all the people who might come to campus are doing so in good faith with the interests of our students at heart.” He concludes, “When we DO have someone controversial, I think that we should prepare the students with teach-ins, readings and discussions.”

And this is precisely why we still need colleges and liberal arts courses – so we can learn how to talk to people with whom we disagree, to exchange and examine ideas freely, without death threats - or concussions.