On Sept. 24, the world-famous moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt stepped up to the podium in WLH 119 to give Yale a presentation on two models of education: Strengthen U. and Coddle U. Strengthen U. is centered around the idea that truth and knowledge are above all else; trying to expand your understanding of the world, the beliefs you hold and the ways you think are all paramount to your education. Strengthen U. believes that pushing students’ intellectual boundaries helps them to arrive at truth.
At Coddle U., nobody should ever be made to feel uncomfortable, so anything that a student deems “insulting” or “offensive” is so by definition. All forms of diversity — racial, geographic, ethnic (except ideological diversity of course, this plays no role in a college students’ development) — are valued.
Exaggeration aside, Haidt’s actual point was that most liberal arts institutions fall more into the category of “coddlers” rather than “strengtheners.” While his characterization was a bit hyperbolic, I do strongly believe that Yale embodies the spirit of a “coddler.” As a conservative senior, I have seen Yalies on both sides of the political spectrum repeatedly avoid ideas and opinions that they don’t like. This goes beyond the average person who simply doesn’t agree with someone else in an argument or discussion; some students don’t want to have the discussion in the first place.
At an institution as intellectually rigorous as Yale, this is a tragic waste of our tuition money and time. One of the best things about Yale is that we are surrounded by brilliant and engaging people. To actively avoid expanding your knowledge or engaging with the opposition squanders the incredible opportunity that we have been given.
Yet that is exactly what’s been happening. Think of activist and author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom many students demanded be disinvited from campus. Or John Ashcroft, the former attorney general whose scheduled talk had nothing to do with his controversial views on torture. What engaging and worthwhile discussions we could have if only students were to go to these talks — and ask tough questions! At the very least, students would gain a better understanding of their opponent’s arguments and how to counter them.
It is just as if not more pernicious when students silence themselves. When I was a CCE my sophomore year, some of us in the program disagreed about certain policies. For example, someone suggested that alcohol may, in some cases, in some way, slightly, change something about one’s sexual desires. We were immediately and vehemently shot down, both by the administrative heads and the other students, and it was made clear that the topic was not up for discussion.
Most troubling of all, students self-censor when they believe they are in the presence of opposition. The most unbelievable example of this came when I was watching the second Republican debate in September in Silliman’s movie theater. An audience member asked if there were any Republicans in the room, and a few meek freshmen raised their hands. She responded by saying, “O.K., then I’ll just keep my opinions to myself.” This was unfathomable to me! Where else, if not in college, while watching a debate with 15–20 other members of your small community, could you have a sound, reasonable discussion about the issues?
So my plea is this: when you find yourself in the presence of someone who disagrees with you about an issue, say something! Start a conversation. Ask them why they feel that way. Explain a different side of the issue that they may not have considered. And if you see someone being shut down because others don’t feel their point is worth considering, speak up. It doesn’t matter if you actually agree with their point; what matters is that you help them and others engage in a discussion about it and become more informed as a result.
I’ll leave you with a personal anecdote. The same day that Jonathan Haidt gave his talk, I ended up getting into a discussion with a friend (and fellow conservative) about the relative merits of upholding tradition. He argued that traditions, such as gender roles, naturally keep order and protect society. I argued that many traditions (e.g., segregation) change over time and have been proven “wrong” or immoral as cultures evolve. After about 45 minutes of discussion, we realized that what we really disagreed about was how much evidence is necessary to say that traditions are generally useful.
The next morning as I was biking through the Silliman courtyard, he waved in my direction and shouted, “See you, friend!” And we’re still friends today.
Eli Feldman is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at email@example.com .