Saturday, August 27, 2016

How to Have a Free Marketplace of Ideas

The New York Times has an article here describing a letter sent by the University of Chicago to incoming students notifying them that the university would not sanction the creation of "safe spaces," trigger warnings, or the cancelling of speakers who held controversial ideas.  If the comment section is a good cross-section of the readers' opinions, it seems most people agree with the university.

I agree as well, but when I taught high school English, I explained to my students that I wanted to have a free marketplace of ideas for our discussions, but to make that work, the students needed to commit to maintaining a civility of discourse, i. e. no personal attacks.

That worked very well.  I remember a time when a student told the class that AIDS was God's punishment for men having sex with apes.  She was from a very religious background.  I held my breath, but my students carefully, and clearly and respectfully explained to her what we knew about the origin of AIDS.  On this girl's class evaluation at the end of the term, she wrote that the best thing about the class were the discussions.

So yes: free marketplace of ideas.  But I really think you need a civility of discourse to make that work.  We are in the middle of a presidential election now, and sometimes debates seem to be nothing but personal attacks.  Words like "loser" and "racist" are flung about and, I think,  poison any ability to have a thoughtful discussion of ideas.

1 comment:

  1. I love your description Mary, "free marketplace of ideas!" As a retired teacher also, it would be nice to sit down with you over a cup of coffee to exchange our views freely. Please take a look at my digital one-room schoolhouse via My family thinks I'm crazy to spend so many hours working on my idea; as sort of an answer to them, I am in the process of writing a new piece I am calling "One Voice." Thanks for inviting comments to your blogspot!