more than free speech

[In response to conversations regarding free speech on campus, a president of a small college offers a response]:

On campuses, however, we must strive for something more than free speech. Our mission requires that we seek what I refer to as constructive engagement. It is not enough for individuals to speak freely. We must also find myriad ways to put a range of views into conversation with one another. It is what we do in classrooms every day. It is what we do on debate teams. It is what happens across every campus, far more than critics appreciate. It is what happens in the lives of college students much more frequently than in the lives of most adults, in part because college campuses and social networks tend to be more diverse than “real world” neighborhoods and social clubs.

This emphasis on constructive engagement is why, at Union College, we have launched an initiative to create the conditions for hearing and learning from diverse perspectives. One key element is an explicit and stated goal of understanding. Another is that speakers must take unscreened, sincere questions from the audience, and they are expected to respond respectfully. And finally, speakers must have evidence and reasoned arguments to support their views, given that both form the foundation upon which knowledge and wisdom rest. This is not the place to bash those who think otherwise with literal or figurative personal attacks, to privilege heat and fury over light and insight.

With this approach, and especially in the small, collegial community that is our distinctive liberal arts college, we commit to exposing our community to a range of perspectives. Success is not measured by how different the speakers’ views are from those most prevalent on the campus, but rather by the number of people who understand, and perhaps even reconsider or change their views as a result of the experience, regardless of the direction of change. As an educational institution, that’s our goal in the classroom. We expect nothing less of the speech that occurs elsewhere on campus.

– David Harris (in Inside Higher Ed)

hope is participatory

Is hope practical—a pragmatic tool to help you navigate the muck-and-mire of life? Or is it about shattering the practical so that new possibilities can be dreamed, imagined, and birthed?

For all its mystery, I know that hope is important. I know because I’ve wrestled with the apathy, resignation, and despair that befriend you in its absence.

“Hope,” American poet Emily Dickinson famously penned, “is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul,/And sings the tune without the words,/And never stops — at all.”

There is something really beautiful about this image of hope as a winged melody-maker—a constant friend that “no storm” can break, and that keeps you warm on “the chilliest land,/And on the strangest sea.”

Hope is always present, she says, and “yet never, in extremity…asked a crumb of me.”

This, truth be told, is where Dickinson loses me. In my own eye-of-a-storm, swimming-upstream, wandering-in-a-desert (or whatever other metaphor) kind of moments, I’ve often waited for hope to arrive, crossing my fingers that it might spontaneously re-emerge somehow.

Well, perhaps waiting is not my forte, but more and more I believe that hope does ask something—often a lot (and usually more than just a “crumb”)—of us, particularly in our darkest moments.

Hope, I think, is participatory.

In my own preoccupation with hope, I’ve been trying different images and metaphors on for size. I’ve imagined hope as a habit that must be practiced. Or as a muscle that must be flexed—a muscle that, admittedly, I’ve let atrophy in recent years. I’m still exploring what practices help me rebuild that muscle, what tools might challenge the muscle memory of cynicism (built up over years!), which can quickly pull me back into old stories and habits of thinking.

To circle back to Dickinson’s metaphor, I believe more every day that for hope to live, thrive, and be resilient, I need to feed it. After all, what you choose to feed gets stronger.

– from an Advent reflection by Jenny Wiebe, interim director of the MCC Ottawa Office