Zachary Wood is a remarkable young man. He’s black, attends a predominantly liberal elite college (Williams) and believes that robust and civil arguments are vital to America’s continuing success.
He is the president of a student group at Williams called Uncomfortable Learning (UL), which has the mission of bringing to campus notable speakers who can articulate a wide range of perspectives.
Most recently, UL sponsored a talk by philosophy Professor Christina Hoff Sommers, who is a well-known critic of many of the claims of feminism. (See her video blog The Factual Feminist.) That’s what makes her an ideal speaker – she calmly and reasonably argues a case that many young liberal students find jarring. Her opinions clash with so much they’ve been taught.
How did the students at Williams react? Many of them reacted like angry children, snickering, yelling insults, and ranting instead of asking questions.
You can see video of Professor Sommers’ talk here.
Responding to her treatment, Wood has a superb piece in the Nov. 17th Wall Street Journal entitled “At Williams, a Funny Way of ‘Listening.’” He was disappointed in both the students and the Williams administration.
Wood writes, “After one student shouted ’f-you!’ at the speaker, an administrator seemed to affirm the heckler’s veto, signaling to me with a timeout gesture that it was time to end the event. In an effort to give as many students as possible a chance to engage the speaker, I approached the administrator and negotiated another 15 minutes for questions. But the remainder of the Q&A consisted mostly of bellicose rhetoric and long-winded stories of personal trauma, many of which had little to do with the topic at hand.”
And most disappointing of all was the school’s president, Adam Falk. Wood explains that following that UL event, he wrote in the Washington Post that “our students listened closely, then responded with challenging questions and in some cases blunt critiques.”
The problem with that characterization, Wood responds, is that it “grossly misrepresents what happened.” Many students acted disruptively during Sommers’ talk and as for those “challenging questions,” there were far more “personal attacks, directed either at her or at me for inviting her.” Perhaps the most egregious affront of all was that a group of students yelled that she was “stupid, harmful, and white supremacist.”
Christina Hoff Sommers is not stupid, not a white supremacist, and if she’s “harmful,” that harm is confined to the small minds of college students who can’t stand it when people disagree with the beliefs that have been instilled in them.
Wood is himself getting blowback from his fellow students for what they regard as his treasonous act. He reports that members of the Black Student Union are shunning him. “I expect this kind of recrimination. But I can’t speak for other students who’ve told me they worry about how their interest in my group (UL) may affect their relationship with their black classmates.”
It’s a deplorable state of affairs when college students – especially at an elite school – won’t listen respectfully to speakers and indulge in virtue signaling by turning their backs on other students who favor dialogue and civility. It’s equally deplorable that educational leaders like president Falk don’t see any problem.