Editorial: Free Speech at Lawrenceville
One of the defining facets of the Lawrenceville experience is the so-called ‘Harkness Education,’ embedded in our identity at students and how we learn.
One of the defining facets of the Lawrenceville experience is the so-called ‘Harkness Education,’ embedded in our identity at students and how we learn. We embrace a diversity of different ideas in class discussions, encourage each other to remain firm in our beliefs, and promote unpopular opinions by giving them a chance to flourish at the Harkness table. Despite all the hours we spend practicing these skills, there are moments when we frequently fail to apply Harkness principles outside of the classroom, making us question whether students are truly using Harkness beyond the table.
This past week, Robert George, the Director of the James Madison Program at Princeton University, came to speak as a part of this year’s Capstone Lecture series. Before the lecture, many Lawrentians were vocal about their disapproval of the School’s inviting George to speak. Their discontent stemmed from the fact that George, according to the New York Times, believes that same-sex marriage violates the fundamental understanding of marriage as a “mind-body union” between man and woman. Some students criticized the administration for welcoming someone whom they judged to be a homophobe into the school community, saying that George’s background and beliefs make many Lawrentians uncomfortable. While by no means does the Board condone George’s views on gay marriage, what drew us to write this editorial was our awareness of a greater trend that has been broiling underneath the surface of our allegedly diverse community. Too often do we associate conflicting or opposing views with radical views like George’s, making us less open to other opinions on campus. Students with differing stances on controversial issues are frequently lumped into the same group as those who may hold more radical points of views; thus, our political culture has become increasingly one-sided and toxically partisan.
It is no secret that the majority of our campus is liberal. Although we say that we champion freedom of speech and embrace thoughts that are different from our own, an idea that emanates through our Harkness education, if someone holds a slightly more conservative viewpoint on a widely debated political issue or disagrees with the norm, then we immediately label him or her a bigot. But is someone automatically a bigot simply because the individual does not agree with the majority point of view? Is upholding only one political view in the spectrum and scorning all others truly what it means to encourage diversity?
Around a Harkness table, we push and strengthen our own understanding of a topic by listening to our peers, but we struggle to apply the same lessons we learn around the table to more political conversations on campus. There are a multitude of issues within our country that are met with extreme political polarization; but instead of addressing these issues, our community dismisses conversations on these topics.
A case in point is our student body’s response to the issue of abortion. While half of the country feels strongly against the practice, because that viewpoint is not represented proportionally in the Lawrenceville community, those who hold it face ostracization. At times, it seems as though we forget our campus is not an accurate microcosm of the United States’ political beliefs. We have created a political culture on campus that seems to only champion one line of thinking, one that does not foster civil discourse or even the willingness to engage in such discussions. If students do not agree with every view that the most vocal individuals support, then they are immediately attacked or ignored; such criticism has reached such a degree that many of us are afraid to speak our true thoughts, fearing a negative response from our peers.
In class, Lawrenceville has taught us to lean into discomfort and to listen to every side of a multifaceted conversation, but we lose the dedication to Harkness values when we are not around the physical table. We can only grow as individuals if we truly champion freedom of speech both inside and outside the classroom, and we can only strengthen our lines of thinking if we willingly expose ourselves to others and encourage discomfort. In doing so, we may even change our minds completely and look at an issue from a novel perspective; or, we may not. Regardless of whether or not we agree with an individual on a subject, we should at least open our hearts to listen to his or her point of view; only then can we create a culture that genuinely embraces diversity and provides each and every individual with an equal platform to voice their opinions.