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Can We Talk

Originally written in November, 2006

I was born into a family of talkers. Dinnertime in the Helm household was a daily celebration of story telling, teasing, pranks, bickering, and outright debates on every imaginable topic. Visitors to our family dinners probably wondered if we ever actually listened to each other except to figure out when we could interrupt whoever was speaking.

Well, in fact we did listen to each other. I give my lawyer father credit for that. He always told us that a person who could articulate only one side of a debate was a simpleton. And so we listened, if only to figure out the vulnerabilities in each other’s reasoning and more effectively argue the other side of whatever that night’s issue might be. Whenever the debates became a little too spirited, Dad would remind us that reason – not volume – would carry the day. And though debate might add spice to the meal, mutual affection and respect were always the main ingredients. I was the middle of three brothers and thus naturally the mediator and fence-mender. It was my lot to hear both sides of any argument, find common ground, and bring the warring factions back together. It’s a role that prepared me well for my work in higher education.

I thought of those family dinners when I found myself engaged in an extended e-mail dialogue with a disgruntled alumnus who had stopped supporting his alma mater because it was “too liberal.”

Listening to people who disagree with us can be hard work and many of us find it easier to pass judgment on groups rather than arguments. My e-mail pen pal, for example, dismissed his college’s last three commencement speakers as “lefties” without citing any ideas they had actually expressed in their commencement addresses as proof of such an astonishing assertion. I have friends who snort contemptuously at any position offered by “Bushies” or “Neocons” without assessing the merits of particular ideas. The spin, name-calling, and sloganeering that passes for public discourse in our society today is not debate, but a substitute for thought.

How much stronger our country would be if its citizens spent more time listening to diverse opinions with open minds. Training such citizens is, I believe, the most important and fundamental mission of our colleges and universities. I believe that assuring access to educational opportunity is a cornerstone of democracy. But this is true only if the education we provide is free of political orthodoxy or ideology -- in short, if it teaches our students how to think independently. As the distinguished American jurist Learned Hand once wrote: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias. . . .”

As a college president I always reminded our newest freshmen that they would learn more from those who disagree with them than from those with whom they agree. That whether the issue be foreign policy, human rights, health care, economics, aesthetics, cultural preferences, or personal values they should subject their most cherished assumptions to the salubrious but sometimes harsh light of those whose views are diametrically opposed.

It is natural, but nonetheless disappointing that many find it difficult to tolerate the intellectual free-for-all that often accompanies academic debate. While dogmatic political correctness has no place on campus, I have found that those who complain about it most vociferously would often replace it with orthodoxy of their own.

I offer a simple invitation: let each of us pledge to spend a few minutes each day considering the possibility that someone with whom we disagree just might be right. In doing so, may each of us take to heart another quotation from Judge Learned Hand, who once said of the First Amendment: “right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues, than through any kind of authoritative selection.''

My father, God bless him, would have agreed.