We’ve reached the last week of the semester, and, with that, the last meetings of classes. I sometimes find that last session a little awkward — the lectures where you feel obliged to clap a little longer than you actually feel is deserved, or the seminars where the professor ends with an unceremonious bye.
But Wednesday, one of my courses left me thinking, partially because of the content of the class, and partially because of how the class’ ending mapped onto recent events. The class was a seminar on inequality in the United States; over the past months, the 18 of us, a pack of earnest and generally well-intentioned liberals, read books on everything from migrant workers picking berries in Washington to the neoliberal deregulation of the welfare state in the 1980s and its impact on single mothers in Milwaukee. Every week, we’d sit around a table and bemoan society’s inequities, highlighting the mind-boggling lack of empathy in American society and musing on what paths, if any, lay open for idealists like us to tackle these problems.
Don’t misinterpret my glib description: I loved every second of it. Or maybe love is the wrong word to use when referring to hours spent each week reading about the ways in which this country systematically fails many of its citizens. But the readings engaged me, and class discussions left me feeling inspired with righteous indignation.
Wednesday, our professor ended by asking us whether we thought a class like this could be a meaningful step toward creating positive change in the world. And of course, on some level the answer is yes: As I just said, many of the books we read this semester left me feeling motivated to go out and try to address these problems. Many students in the class talked about the ways in which the readings opened their eyes to problems far beyond what they had imagined; that’s important, and will hopefully change the way they think and act for the better going forward.
Despite these hopeful sentiments, however, I was skeptical. If the other students in the class were anything like me, they took this class not to fundamentally shift their perception of inequality. They took the class precisely because they were already aware of the problem. From the very title of the class, it was clear what its thesis would be: Inequality is a pervasive problem in this country, and one that is not being addressed nearly comprehensively enough.
I took the class not because that fact shocked me, but because I was already aware of and troubled by it. I was already familiar with some (though by no means all) of the ways in which the United States government treats its citizens unequally. And I already agreed with the conviction that this phenomenon is profoundly unjust. So this class, to me, was more of a reinforcement — it gave me data with which to more clearly argue my views but was still merely a reflection of my preexisting beliefs.
Many people in the class were in a similar position, I would argue. And it’s not unique to this class: Over my time at Yale, I’ve gone out of my way to take classes that focus on inequality, egalitarian philosophy and welfare reform. That’s partially because it’s what interests me disproportionately, but it’s also because the material lines up with my beliefs.
But to get back to my professor’s question, what would really effect change is if people who would be surprised by or uncomfortable with the arguments put forth in the class had taken it. In that case, the class might have actually changed someone’s mind.
My criticism applies to myself, too, of course: I should make a bigger effort to take classes at Yale that run contrary to my instinctive worldview. But the fact of the matter is that subjecting oneself to the discomfort needed to really change one’s mind isn’t fun — it’s infinitely easier to, as so many of us do, take classes that conform to what we believe, just as we get our news exclusively from outlets that share our perspective.
And it’s easy, too, in certain circumstances, to simply say that there is no difference of “opinion;” one side has the facts and the other has none. I’d be inclined to agree that, with regard to some issues, that’s true. But that doesn’t detract from the value of grappling with differing viewpoints. There’s a dangerous impulse to surround ourselves only with voices that echo our own, and I worry it does a disservice to the very problems we want to remedy.
Victoria Hall-Palerm is a senior in Berkeley College. Her columns run on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.