Professor Sam Crane writes :

I talked yesterday, and had a pleasant dinner with, a group of alumni from my college. They were students of a famed teacher, Robert L. Gaudino. He was an immensely dedicated teacher, committed to the idea of “uncomfortable learning,” challenging fundamental assumptions and, even, identities. I was impressed by the deep effect this teacher had on his students, evident still forty years later.

Gaudino was one of the most important professors at Williams in the last 50 years. (I just created his Wikipedia page. Who will add to it?) We all agree on the importance of “uncomfortable learning,” of being confronted by strange and disquieting views, of learning that not everyone thinks as we think and acts as we act. Don’t we?

Alas, we don’t. Some are too quick to sacrifice a diversity of viewpoints in the name of “promoting acceptance.”

In reaction to the racial slur that was directed at a student in May 2005, President Schapiro asserted that “hateful behavior lies well outside the boundaries of this community’s standards.” Last Friday, a misguided student ignored that message and crossed those boundaries. An incendiary poster campaign promoted a pro-Hitler message and mocked the remembrance of genocide. Cognizant of recent events at Virginia Tech, some Williams students were terrified by the message and afraid to participate in ordinary activities.

The behavior that promoted this kind of fear among community members was unacceptable. Williams must be a safe and accepting community. All students have the right to walk around campus and participate in activities without feeling threatened. No student has the right to make a member of the Williams community uncomfortable. As your elected officers, we condemn the posters and ensure the community that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.

No, no, no. A thousand times No. Not only does Julia have the right to make the students around her “uncomfortable,” she has an obligation to do so. We all do, particularly members of the Williams faculty and those alumni with a devoted interest in our beloved alma mater. If you are “comfortable” at Williams all year long, then the College is doing something wrong. A comfortable liberal arts education is an oxymoron.

Now, of course, we don’t want students to feel “terrified” (as some no doubt were by Julia’s posters); we need to ensure that everyone can participate in the Williams conversation; we need ground rules for maximizing effectiveness and inclusion. Yet Julia’s decision to put up posters featuring Hitler as a satire of, and comment on, the WCJA’s Holocaust Remembrance Day campaign is well within the framework of a Williams education, of “uncomfortable learning.” Say what you will about Julia, but this Record article makes clear that she is intelligent, thoughtful and well-spoken. There is no doubt that she belongs at Williams, that she is a part of the community, that her speech has educated others. She might want to cultivate some more empathy for those around her, especially those students who “felt threatened” by the posters. (Much the same was said, correctly, of me 20 years ago. Surely, loyal EphBlog readers know that I was the Julia of my day at Williams.) But empathy will come with time, as it comes to all of us.

Surely at least some members of the faculty would agree with this sentiment, would recognize that posters like Julia’s, ideas which we find offensive, are an integral part of our education. Or are there no Robert Gaudino’s left at Williams? Consider this description of an event at Williams 25 years ago, before Julia had even been born.

Steve Lewis [’60, former Economics professor] began by discussing three events that had occurred at Williams which were “created” by Gaudino. In essence, Gaudino responded to certain situations and transformed them into educational “events.” Steve introduced the events by referencing one of Gaudino’s questions: “Isn’t education really one big upset stomach?”

Indeed it is. Read the whole thing. If Bob Gaudino were at Williams today, he would be turning this into an “event,” defending in the strongest possible terms Julia’s active participation in the intellectual life of the College, asking all of us to consider (and appreciate) the stomach ache that these posters have created.

Where have you gone, Professor Gaudino?

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