Floyd ’20 on Diversifying School Speakers at Lawrenceville

From Cellist Okorie “OKCello” Johnson to National Geographic Young Explorer Alizé Carrère, the Lawrenceville community hears from speakers with diverse backgrounds and experiences, both during and outside of school meeting. But as audience members listen to and watch these presentations, not many understand the process that students and faculty go through when deciding which speakers to invite.

From Cellist Okorie “OKCello” Johnson to National Geographic Young Explorer Alizé Carrère, the Lawrenceville community hears from speakers with diverse backgrounds and experiences, both during and outside of school meeting. But as audience members listen to and watch these presentations, not many understand the process that students and faculty go through when deciding which speakers to invite.

Even though the 2018-2019 Student Council worked closely to plan school meetings, they had little voice in choosing speakers. Faculty, alumni, and occasionally, students are responsible for organizing these events and presentations. According to Assistant Dean of Students Emilie Kosoff H’96 ’00 P’19, the goal of inviting speakers is to “help us think differently” and provocatively on a range of subjects, both locally and globally.

While the speakers do represent diverse perspectives and backgrounds, Kosoff does not want a speaker who “is going to cause a firestorm” or is “someone on the extreme end of either political or social thinking.” She does want to invite “those who [...] make us listen a little more deeply about some of our assumptions.” Often times, the student body’s reaction to speakers represents the current climate of the school culture in ways that may be difficult to gauge otherwise, and these reactions can be just as much of an informative experience as listening to the speakers themselves. For example, the strong response to Dalia Mogahed’s speech sparked discussion regarding how some students may feel that conservative voices are underrepresented at Lawrenceville.

However, Student Council Diversity Representative Jax Floyd ’20 has a different way of thinking of things. When asked about his ideas for fostering diversity and discussion this school year through school speakers, Floyd describes his plans to “invite speakers with whom the majority disagrees” and promote civil discourse with provocative speakers who challenge the notions that Lawrentians take as cemented fact.

“Lawrenceville needs to be in the business of educating its students with a wide variety of opinions, not indoctrinating [Lawrenceville] minds solely with the views of the majority,” he said. Anticipating speakers like Cornel West, a prominent Democratic intellectual; Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and white nationalist; and John McWhorter, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, Floyd claims Lawrenceville’s speaking schedule “[teaches] us what to think instead of how to think,” arguing that students at Lawrenceville are only “presented with one side of the story.” Floyd believes a critical component of education is learning how to disagree, which begins with hard, uncomfortable conversations, oftentimes about issues of race and diversity. Floyd expresses that he is “willing to hear out any opinion, even if it is offensive, if it is wholeheartedly and sincerely with the purpose of promoting intellectual conversation on campus.” On drawing the line between offensive and hateful and bigoted, Floyd explains he “would not [...] invite white supremacists because that’s not going to advance the level of dialogue or education that we’re going to have on campus.”

One speaker Floyd has bold ambitions of inviting is Charles Murray, a political scientist and Harvard professor who wrote The Bell Curve, a scientific study that offers a justification for the notion that being African-American leads to intellectual inferiority relative to other races. Floyd remarks that Murray is what many would consider to be a scientific racist yet emphasizes that “it would be unreasonable to characterize Charles Murray as anything but a scholar,” because Murray has taught at Harvard for the past 30 years and published several papers and books in the field of anthropology and social studies.

Floyd believes that even though Murray’s claims might offend people, “his coming here would directly benefit the state of intellectual discourse on campus, and challenge all of us in a healthy, productive way.” For some students, Murray’s rhetoric may undermine their presence at an elite institution like Lawrenceville. For instance, in 2017, Middlebury College in Vermont invited Charles Murray to come speak, but he was met with student protests that ultimately descended into violent riots. The administration was forced to cancel his talk, and student protestors faced disciplinary action. It’s unclear what reaction Charles Murray’s presence might pose to the Lawrenceville community.

To address this criticism, Floyd refers back to Headmaster Murray H’55’65 P’16’21’s famous quote: “If not Lawrenceville, where? If not Lawrentians, whom?” According to Floyd, “If we can’t hear out the opinions with which we most vehemently disagree, even though they offend us here at Lawrenceville, we have no hope at the university level and in this democracy at large.” Lawrenceville is responsible for developing the skills at the foundation of an educated, worldly citizen willing and prepared to participate and be an active member of their communities.

Paramount to the success of Floyd’s ambitions is proper facilitation to ensure the conversations that may come from inviting these controversial figures is productive yet respectful, an issue that Lawrenceville has a history of struggling with. To offer proper space to unpack these speakers’ assertions, Floyd envisions “gathering in the Allan P. Heely Room and letting people go,” in the form of large town halls. He acknowledges the discomfort that accompanies loaded topics like the scientific racism behind supposed intellectual inferiority, but, “with proper moderation, by groups like DivCo, by the administration and proper knowledge,” Floyd believes Lawrenceville is capable of fostering informed, productive discussion that can lead to personal and intellectual growth.

Oftentimes, when it comes to initiatives with diversity and identity, it can be difficult to get meaningful engagement from Lawrentians who aren’t on extreme opposites of the political spectrum. Where the majority of students exhibit a sort of apathetic neutrality, Floyd believes in the power of controversy to increase interest and engagement. He explains that although the administration may push back on this, “one way to get people in the door is if they expect something interesting to happen.” Students are going to be attracted to controversial opinions and controversy in general, and when they do show up, Lawrentians are going to be forced to “really critically examine the assertions” behind their beliefs and the beliefs of others. One of Floyd’s plans for school speakers at the institutional level is to set up a student committee, similar to the all-school reading committee that was created last year, to determine the lineup of speakers. His hopes for a school speaker committee would be to promote “a more representative speaking body” that would reflect and challenge the views of the students to help achieve, in Floyd’s opinion, “the ultimate goal of this school: to promote dialogue.”

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