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Swarthmore’s Unending Seminar

By Rebecca Chopp

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President Chopp (center) participates on a faculty panel this spring. Photo by Elena Ruyter

In my four years at Swarthmore, among the many things I’ve learned is that our alumni take great pride in the intensity of the experience they had here, both inside and outside the classroom. They recall fondly the almost constant dialogue and spirited debate. More than a few have conveyed to me that their intense Swarthmore experience offered distinctive mental, emotional, and physical training for the real world, a world in which freedom with responsibility is constantly in demand within their communities and their professions.

Today, the word “intense” is often associated with strength and passion. But the word comes from the Latin intensus, which means “stretched tightly and strained.” This spring, our community lived out in full force both the contemporary and the classical understandings of “intense.” As many alumni and friends of Swarthmore know, some students—at times disagreeing with one another—lobbied hard for change in a variety of arenas and issues, including divestment from fossil fuel companies, racism, homophobia, classism, and practices and policies regarding sexual assault and harassment. As we move forward together as a community, we will, of course, carefully consider their perspectives and attempt to build on some of their efforts as we work to improve the College by resolving some of the vexing, deeper cultural problems manifested in our society and on our campus.

This student unrest was by no means unique to Swarthmore. Numerous campuses around the country experienced similar waves of activism. And the capacity to network via Skype, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, among other media, has enabled students from different colleges and universities to connect rapidly and to combine their considerable energies and expertise in pursuit of social change.

I am disappointed in our failure this spring to support, at each and every moment, both the expression and the protection of all forms of speech. Freedom of speech, among the most important responsibilities in any higher education institution, requires not only that all speakers be allowed to deliver their messages, but also that persons who wish to express different points of view have multiple opportunities to do so. Taking over meetings, clapping down other speakers, and other interruptions violate our deepest community values and dilute our ability to nurture and protect free speech for everyone, especially those whose voices are often marginalized. Creating multiple forums, whether virtual or physical, in which students and others can express their concerns allows diverse points of view and critical analysis to be heard.

I consider it an obligation of this College, indeed of all institutions of higher education, to protect free speech in order to prepare citizens to live successfully in—and to contribute to—a democratic society. With this in mind, the seminar experience at Swarthmore strikes me as a perfect metaphor for living intensely while learning the responsibilities that accompany free speech. I mean this not only literally—in terms of classes and laboratories where students master thinking critically in a community that welcomes diverse ideas and perspectives—but also metaphorically, since the 24/7 intellectual life at Swarthmore doesn’t end at classroom or laboratory doors.

Years ago, I taught a seminar in American religious history at Emory University. Two men in the class could not connect. Neither listened to the other. There were subtle signs of tension, of “microaggression.” One of the men was a Vietnam vet, older than other students, returning to college. The younger student, whom I will call “Li,” came from mainland China. The vet, whom I’ll call “Joe,” didn’t like my syllabus, which included thinkers such as W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Martin Luther King Jr., and Adrienne Rich. Li, on the other hand, liked my list of what he called “freedom thinkers,” as it included not only those mentioned above but also others such as George Whitefield, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Jefferson, and Harry Emerson Fosdick.

By this time in my career, I had led many seminars at Emory and at the University of Chicago, yet in this course, orchestrating a healthy, rigorous debate and the exploration of ideas proved very challenging. Class members simply could not connect with one another enough to have any meaningful exchange of ideas or honest expression. (A good seminar doesn’t require people to like each other, but it does require them to engage one another and to be open to what others have to say.)

But then one day we turned to the essay “Of the Passing of the First Born,” in which DuBois discusses the death of his young son. Joe had lost his son, and Li had lost a younger brother—both at about the same age. The two of them connected through this shared human experience of loss and grief. Slowly, not perfectly, their worlds opened up to each other and to the rest of us. That fragile bridge offered them and the entire class the possibility of exploring different ideas, competing values, and new realities. People didn’t come to complete agreement. But they listened, learned, argued, and found the courage to explore every opinion, idea, and experience.

The seminar experience—both real and metaphorical—shapes our minds and hearts and enables us to find enough courage to question ourselves and others; to gain the strength to be humble when assessing the correctness of our own opinions and ideas; and to learn to listen to those with whom we disagree. A successful seminar does not give people the muscle to impose on others their ideas of what the world should be like. Rather, you learn that you must sometimes have the guts to hold your tongue and, at other times, muster the courage to speak. The habits and virtues learned—love of truth, honesty, humility, courage, fairness, wisdom—are really the muscles, the force, the power behind the freedom and responsibility of free speech. In sum, a good seminar provides for its participants the power to create what philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer would call “a new horizon,” fused out of multiple views.

In the early 1960s, some people weren’t happy that a student group at Swarthmore had invited Gus Hall, general secretary of the U.S. Communist Party, to campus to speak. In backing the students, Swarthmore President Courtney Smith proclaimed, “If America is scared even to listen to competing ideas, we are finished.”

The ability to listen as well as to speak and to synthesize competing ideas constitutes the heart and soul of democracy. It is the greatest strength our students can attain, which is why I will work to ensure that the values governing the successful seminar permeate our community.

Swarthmore has an opportunity to lead the country in creating diverse and inclusive communities where free speech fully serves democracy. Our striving for diversity has resulted in a community that represents a wide variety of social and political views (a point that seems to have escaped some in the media when covering our campus events this spring). Our quest to serve the common good must emphasize free speech—and be guided by honest, humble, respectful engagement, rooted not in agreement, but in our core habits of rigorous and creative thinking, open, thoughtful expression, and a willingness, always, to learn. In other words, the seminar experience.

Note: This column is adapted from President Chopp’s 2013 Commencement remarks.

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