Glancing around my “Women in Modern America” class last year, I spotted about a dozen men in the large lecture hall. When I stopped a first year to ask how many people of color were in his freshman seminar with John Gaddis he paused before admitting that he couldn’t think of any. For all the hectic chaos of shopping period, the makeup of our classes is often disappointingly unsurprising, not the syllabi — the people.
Classroom challenges should not be simply limited to the hours poured into a strong paper or problem set, but rather extended to a constant questioning of the assumptions we carry into the room. Disagreements should not just be semantic, but substantive. Instead, it’s too easy to self-select classes within intellectual comfort zones, creating small pockets of uniform thought, worshipping the same cast of professors every semester.
Maybe I’m biased in what my vision of debate should look like: I was one of those high school nerds who spent my weekends constructing and deconstructing cases in two-hour rounds where anything could be attacked, any idea could be a target. Sometimes, those contests felt pointless. However, debate supplemented my public school, classroom-and-textbook education with a focus on good “clash”: A tug-of-war between fundamentally opposing ideas. Granted, there are universally celebrated courses here that draw people from all backgrounds and produce vibrant discussions. I’m regularly humbled by the intelligence of my teachers and peers. Too often, though, clash is missing from our classrooms.
Unlike what conservative pundits might claim, the predictability of our class compositions reaches across all sides of the spectrum. Over dinner, I’ve heard countless students undermine the legitimacy of American, African American, or Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies — without having ever taken a class in those departments. Too many right-leaning students reinforce narrow conceptions of what constitutes “real” academics without testing those hypotheses. I doubt that Party of the Right members often take courses critically examining colonialism. Many who revere the likes of Charles Hill, who swear by Thucydides and Locke as foundational to our education, will never step foot in Crystal Feimster’s class on the civil rights movement. That’s a shame: They’re missing the opportunity to both learn about and offer an alternate point of view.
Simultaneously, I don’t find minorities’ and liberals’ self-segregation of learning spaces to be beneficial to us. Being absent from discussions we disagree with does not make them disappear. Historically, movements have often needed agents who operate within existing power structures to cement progress. By skirting certain domains of thought — whether that be military history or European literary epics — we forego opportunities to learn about the language and the traditions of power, to disrupt conventional narratives by offering a critical lens currently absent. Arguably, the Marxists are most needed in a cookie-cutter economics course; those historically shunned by institutions should now sit at the table to effectively challenge them. Even if the classes we take engage with establishment ideas by reacting to them, it’s still easy for us to become self-congratulatory by paying little attention to the arguments of the opposition.
Of course, there’s a legitimate argument for developing depth in one area of expertise. And sometimes, the arguments we agree with most need examination, especially if they offer insight into very personal aspects of our position in society. At other times, there exist practical barriers to entering certain spaces: Low-income students may need to prioritize classes that secure a career, seminar professors pick their audience and lack of prior background can make engagement with certain ideas difficult. But in many respects, college provides countless chances to develop a breadth of knowledge. This is especially true at Yale, where students can access such a vast amount of resources and challenge those foremost in their fields. Often, you don’t even have to take a class to reap the benefits; auditing is a privilege that too few take advantage of.
Over the summer, as I arrived home from a nine-to-six job on the Hill, I realized how little space I had to confront my own convictions. As I looked around me, at the men and sometimes women who run our country, I wondered how many times they had been forced to reckon with the ideas they held with certainty. I wondered about Yalies who will one day occupy similar positions of power, and how many times between now and then that they’ll leave their self-curated boxes, on the right or the left, in the sciences or the humanities.
I’m worried that the balkanization of classroom space can set us on parallel tracks of thought that remain completely divorced even after four years. In a community of people dedicated to learning, I hope we’ll instead seize the opportunities to create good, strong, spirited clash for an education that far surpasses my high school debate days.
Liana Wang is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .