Yesterday morning, Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt sent an email to the students of his college explaining his decision to host controversial Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield for a master’s tea on “Manliness.” Last night, Branford College unveiled a new portrait of its long-serving former master Steven Smith and hosted a reception in his honor. Of course, these are two completely unrelated events, but I mention them together because it is worth paying tribute to these two iconic personalities and some of the joint values and ideas they represent.
Goldblatt and Smith are two of the longest serving college masters, with over 30 years of mastership between the two. Smith ended his third term last spring, and Goldblatt will step down after the graduation of the class of 2013. But in addition to the many years of thoughtful mentorship and leadership they have provided to generations of students, these two masters have been fearless in using their positions to fulfill the highest purposes of the University. They, more than almost anyone else at Yale, understand that education is about challenging preconceptions and listening to smart, experienced and serious voices of disagreement.
Too often in today’s political discourse, disagreements are harsh, shrill and lacking in substance. Presidential candidates debate in sound bites in game-show-like formats. Speakers representing unpopular positions in reasonable and respectful tones are vilified as bigots and prohibited from sharing their ideas. At college campuses across the country, students increasingly think heckling and silencing opponents are acceptable (or even preferable) alternatives to thoughtful protest and civil disagreement.
It is only natural that we surround ourselves with those who think similarly and share our worldviews. Profound or substantive intellectual difference makes us uncomfortable, so we silence those who disagree and immerse ourselves in choruses of affirmation. On a basic level, this homogeneity of experience is perfectly acceptable. I spend most of my time with – and most of my close friends are – people who share most of my fundamental values and beliefs.
But a university education has different purposes than a friendship circle, and we abandon our core mission when we isolate ourselves within a bubble of political correctness and conventional wisdom. Our experiences here should be challenging. We should listen to voices of disagreement when they are offered respectfully and truthfully, and we should hope that we are changed — whether by strengthening our convictions or adjusting our perspectives — by the experience.
Yesterday’s email from Goldblatt presented these high ideals in the most articulate and passionate form I have seen since coming to Yale. And more importantly, they clearly come from the soul of a man who genuinely believes in them. He is authentic; how many tenured professors send their students emails in blue font and use caps lock for emphasis?
Master G. inspires love and respect among his students with a force and consistency unparalleled by any other college master I have seen here, and, as a result, his communications carry special significance. His nuanced plea emphasizing that we “do have an obligation to protest and oppose ideas and beliefs that are antithetical” to our own, while appealing to us to do so with “civility and an ability to hear somebody else’s views, no matter how distasteful” is a powerful reminder that professors can still be moral teachers.
This email followed in the same tradition as Smith’s tea with controversial Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard two years ago. Facing security threats and a reprehensible public condemnation from some of his colleagues, Smith plowed ahead, exposing students to an important public figure and insisting that the subject of significant world events receive a civil hearing. Not many other Yale faculty members have that kind of courage and commitment to principle, and the entire community owes him a debt — as much for the ideals he champions as the individual programs or events he organized. His is a true legacy, and future generations of Branfordians are privileged to have his portrait hang above their heads.
Too often, we allow our pet causes and interests to hijack our education. We forget that we are here to challenge and to be challenged and that both can be done intelligently and respectfully without sacrificing principles. There are only a few professors who manage to remind us of our purpose here; one has just left his mastership and another will soon follow. We have a responsibility to thank them. But even more, we have a duty to ensure that their commitment to free speech, respectful dialogue and actively listening to controversial voices continues — even as they fade into portraits on a dining hall wall.
Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. In future weeks, his column will run on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.