By Jackson Mischler ’24
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” -Aristotle
Hobart’s collegiate crest contains a single word: Disce. Latin for “learn.” Disce encapsulates the core value of any liberal arts college, an educational environment that serves as a marketplace for the free exchange of ideas and exposes students to a wide variety of viewpoints, ideologies, and disciplines. Free discussion is at the heart of learning. At colleges such as Hobart and William Smith, ideas should be debated, beliefs should be challenged, and individuals should be required to defend their views with facts. For only when an idea perseveres against skeptical inquiry and systematic academic criticism can it be truly justified. Ideas that do not triumph in the fray of robust debate, but rather cower away from all opposition, are inchoate and unreliable, amounting to little more than unexamined societal dogma. Although the mind that holds these untested ideas might be confident, even strident, in its dismissal of opposition, it is a shoddy shelter from which to sling arrows. Intellectual security should be gained through brave venture toward opposing ideas, not timid retreat from them.
I was thus disheartened by student responses to the opinion piece “Perspectives on Civil Discourse from Two Hobart Alumni” in The Herald’s last issue. In the piece, Hobart Alumni, Jim Anderton ’65 and Nick Hurd ’64, take no ideological stance on the efficacy of “Wokeness” and “Critical Race Theory,” but rather question whether these terms are “used to educate our students through open discussions or … employed to indoctrinate students to become polarized ideologues … not open to listening and free speech.”
Students jumped on the piece in social media forums, referring to it as “the ramblings of alums distanced from the Colleges by sixty years” and claiming that it expressed “dangerous and odious culture war sentiments.” Ironically, this student outcry, including claims that The Herald never should have allowed the piece to be published, reflected the precise worries expressed by Anderton and Hurd. The controversy continued in The Martini issue published on October 13, in which a note from its editor described The Herald’s decision to publish the piece as “silly” and “reckless,” asserting that the piece discredited the terms at issue and implying that publishing the piece was a disservice to the community.
I found student response to the alumni letter shocking because not once did Anderton and Hurd directly attack Critical Race Theory or Wokeness, nor did they ever claim either ideology is bad or misguided. I can understand students taking issue with the proffered definitions or the opinion that these ideologies might in some way be indoctrinating students, but the proper response to intellectual disagreement on a college campus should be open debate, not censorship. Perceived definitional shortcomings should be countered with more precise terminology for the entire community to consider. This type of focused, rigorous, intellectual debate benefits not only those directly involved, but also, in the case of print journalism, the larger community of readers. Disce! Instead, when a whisper of dissent slipped into the campus’s ideological echo chamber, students reacted with rancor rather than reason, resorting to ad hominem attacks on the authors—ageist assaults dismissing the authors’ viewpoint outright based on their age—and cries for The Herald to censor opinion pieces based, ostensibly, on the quality of the opinions expressed. Not once did a student offer an alternative definition for the terms at issue or an explanation as to why the piece posed a danger to the community. No student responded to the story via the comment section below the piece on The Herald’s website or contacted Anderton or Hurd directly about their concerns. Responses were relegated to social media, where they often vaporized within 24 hours, which inhibits the thoughtful examination and reflection at the heart of learning. In fact, no student evidenced desire to engage in any intellectual debate—no student, that is, except me.
After reading the opinion piece, I did what Anderton and Hurd suggested—I listened. The week before Hobart’s bicentennial celebration, I emailed Anderton and Hurd, explaining the controversy their opinion piece had ignited, asking about their motivation for writing the piece, and seeking their response to recent student backlash. Anderton responded to me in 30 minutes, Hurd in 45.
From the student responses, one might expect Anderton and Hurd to be spiteful, mindless old men, decades removed from the community. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anderton is a former member of the Board of Trustees and one of the Colleges’ most philanthropic alums, previously establishing scholarships and a symposium on international affairs. He even invited me to lunch, as he was traveling to campus for the Bicentennial Celebration and eager to connect and converse with current students. Hurd and his wife have also long supported the Colleges in various ways, especially through the expansion of the William Smith athletics department. Neither alum intended to attack Wokeness or Critical Race Theory, but rather to express concerns that a dominant political ideology might be forming on campus, one that silenced students and avoided true debate. Hurd remarked that the topic is being debated on the national level and directed me to opinions and letters published in the Wall Street Journal. He commented that he believes one of the Colleges’ strengths is teaching students how to think, not what to think. Based on conversations with some students, however, Anderton and Hurd were worried that, at their alma mater, the school they both care so much about, students were self-censoring, suppressing key aspects of their own identities out of fear of backlash, and that the ideological tolerance and debate, which was key to their formative years at the Colleges, might be dissipating.
The rash response of students only validates Anderton and Hurd’s concerns. Ironically, their concerns about censorship on campus were met with calls for censorship. After expressing fear that students are unable to express controversial viewpoints without being canceled, they were cancelled. Their concerns that aspects of political progressivism were creating ideologues incapable of engaging in debate were met with personal attacks devoid of true intellectual challenge. The worst part? Most of the student reaction was based upon misconceptions about the authors–who they are, what they believe, and why they wrote the piece–with no attempt to determine the real answers to these central questions before unleashing criticism. Does this fiasco demonstrate that, at Hobart and William Smith, Disce is dead? I hope not.