William Porayouw’s Feb. 28 article about President Salovey’s talks with the presidential advisory board on free expression at Yale highlights challenges faced by all societies based on free exchange of ideas. It is an issue of particular importance for universities both for the atmosphere of learning and inquiry fundamental to our mission but also because of our responsibility to train students to meet the challenges the issue poses in the society in which many will assume positions of influence. In some societies, the power of government is used to actively repress contrary views; in ours, it is committed to maintaining the right to express all views not codified as hate speech or incitement to violence.
Those cited by Porayouw emphasize that we must treat people and their opinions with respect, even if the opinions are in sharp contrast to our own; but challenges to do so run deep. For starters, we simply do not like other people around us to espouse opinions different from our own because our opinions are much of what makes us who we are. Consequently, we associate preferentially with like-minded people; Democrats are more likely to marry Democrats, Republicans to marry Republicans, etc. Added to this is the intensity that students can experience coming to Yale with deeply internalized opinions, world views and values derived from those of their families and home communities to our university environment where contrary views are presented by peers and professors with passionate eloquence.
Learning to respect and appropriately engage with contrary and disturbing ideas is a skill that can and must be enhanced by pedagogic opportunity, which is the university’s raison d’etre. The importance of the issue both requires and provides a powerful opportunity for such learning experiences. Issues that are of immediate and vital experiential relevance to us both as individuals and as members of our community provide special learning opportunities. Making, for example, 2000-year-old philosophy texts of immediate relevance.
I suggest President Salovey and the advisory panel consider establishing a course required of all first-year undergraduates titled “Understanding and Engaging with the Opinions of Others in a Society Built Upon Free Speech.” We have the knowledge in our faculty across departments and schools to create such a course that could become an example for similar courses elsewhere. I imagine the course having at least sections on critical thinking, understanding scientific data and the source and roles of value assumptions in our opinions. Perhaps exercises shown to improve our ability to engage respectfully with different opinions such as writing essays espousing views opposite to one’s own could be employed. If the faculty cannot agree upon the content of such a course, well…
BRUCE E. WEXLER is a professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine. Contact him at 203-710-0715.