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More Uncomfortable Learning

See here for an update on the activities of EphBlog’s favorite student organization: Uncomfortable Learning.

One of the most concerning trends on college campuses over the last several decades has been the increasing monopoly over academic culture by an orthodox ideology. Although all collegiate institutions are vulnerable to this, the absence of intellectual diversity is felt particularly strongly at small, liberal arts colleges. The rise of one-sided, partisan thought has ultimately drowned out reasoned discussion and suppressed opportunities for conversation of alternate opinions. Professors and students are unwilling to comment on what they see at Williams and across universities due to the current culture that views diversity of thought as a threat.

Uncomfortable Learning was started by Benjamin Fishberg ’14, David Gaines ’15, and James Hitchcock ’15 in Winter of 2014 as a guest lecturer series seeking to facilitate further discussion of topics that are often one-sidedly supported on campus.

Good luck to Matthew Hennessy ’17 and Didier Jean-Michel ’17, the new co-presidents.

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#1 Comment By ephalum On August 27, 2015 @ 10:49 am

Basically, they bring conservative speakers (hard to get more right-wing than Mike Needham ’04, or more stupidly right wing than the embarrassingly bad Jonah Goldberg) to campus under a neutral-sounding name. Not that there is anything wrong with conservative speakers on campus (the more ideological diversity on campus, the better, so I’m all for the events they are sponsoring — well, except perhaps for wasting money on the pathetically shallow Goldberg, who somehow managed to publish a book about the purported tyranny of liberal clichés which itself is composed almost entirely of clichés), but if they truly are genuinely committed to “uncomfortable learning” as a general concept rather than simply be another campus right-wing organization masquerading as something they are not, it would be nice if they could challenge the orthodoxy of their own ideas, and not just left-wing ideas.

#2 Comment By ephalum On August 27, 2015 @ 10:59 am

If you want to read an utter and complete evisceration of Goldberg (which is far wittier and funnier than anything Goldberg himself is capable of writing), I recommend this — Pareene is an expert take-down artist regarding hacks of all ideological varieties (his take down of Tom Friedman, for example, is also one for the ages), but this one is his most brutal:


Please, please don’t ever inflict this man on the Williams campus again under the guise of “uncomfortable learning.” No one has EVER learned anything of value from Goldberg.

#3 Comment By dcat On August 27, 2015 @ 11:52 am

Oh, Goldberg. He mis-quoted my advisor on the definition of Fascism, then in an email exchange tried to lord that advisor’s quotation over me, saying something snide like, “but I imagine you don’t read the sort of thing that might disagree with your perspective on history.” I directed him to both the actual quotation that he had misrepresented, and then to the page and line in the acknowledgments section where I was noted as a vital contributor as a research assistant.

Also, when he tried to say that he never equated the left with Hitler and I pointed out, you know, the Hitler mustache on the front cover of his book he hid behind the old “that’s a publisher’s decision, I had no say in it,” I asked him if he ever actually objected, because I had never heard of a publisher putting out a cover that an author flat-out objected to.

We have not exchanged any emails since.

“Hack” is a kindness.


#4 Comment By ephalum On August 27, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

Amen, dcat. To me, bringing Goldberg to campus (no doubt at very high cost) is the right-wing equivalent of when someone brought the crazy anti-lacrosse speaker from Duke to campus (whose name I forget, but he was terrible). Williams is better than that.

#5 Comment By esoskin On August 27, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

Basically, they bring conservative speakers … to campus under a neutral-sounding name

That isn’t anywhere near fair — their invitees are far from a matched set of “conservatives,” but rather, are exemplars of their willingness to discuss “uncomfortable” subjects or to state unorthodox views.

Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE, is someone who should probably be invited to speak on every college campus. He’s a liberal Democrat, a regular contributor at the Huffington Post, and one of the most prominent advocates of free speech — including speech that gives offense — in America.

Randall Kennedy, the Harvard Law professor, perhaps epitomizes “uncomfortable learning” with his often iconoclastic, but usually balanced, takes on racially sensitive topics like affirmative action and racial progress (and the lack thereof) in America. Kennedy’s views defy easy categorization, but it’s clear he’s an independent thinker — and in no way “generally right-wing.”

Richard Sander is a liberal UCLA law professor. That hasn’t kept him from being the target of much criticism from liberals because of the focus of his research on the effects of affirmative action — and his conclusion that (particularly in law school admissions, the subject of his book Mismatch) its ultimate effects are often to harm, not help, the prospects of those to whom admissions staff believe they are directing its benefits.

Norman Finkelstein is someone who deserves as much scorn as you heap upon Goldberg, and then some. And he represents anti-Israel, borderline anti-Semitic views that are often heard on campus already. His invitation is another illustration that this group can’t easily be pigeonholed as the comments above would suggest.

Sure, Needham ’04 and Goldberg are conservatives. I think it’s great that there’s a group that can invite Needham — one of the most influential Ephs in politics today, particularly given the dearth of influential Eph politicians, as we recently discussed. Given his conservative views and the hostility in the GOP to Needham, it’s not clear to me there’s another group that would bring him to campus.

They also deserve props for featuring faculty members like White and Jackall.

#6 Comment By ephalum On August 27, 2015 @ 3:54 pm

Fair enough Eric. I can’t say I know much of anything about several of the speakers you mentioned. I was judging those that I was not familiar with more on their topics of choice, which overwhelmingly seemed to hew to a traditional conservative viewpoint. For example, if a liberal speaker is speaking against affirmative action, I would not call that a liberal perspective, any more than you would categorize a conservative pro-choice speaker as an example of bringing a conservative perspective to campus (I would think). Same with someone who is critical of campus speech codes (a view that I personally share, but that’s besides the point), which has typically been a position increasingly affiliated with conservative campus organizations. Several of those speakers, I would concede, don’t fit neatly into any box, but the general tenor of the folks they are bringing in seem to be conservative speakers, presenting viewpoints popular among conservative advocacy organizations, or both.

I know nothing about Finkelstein but from what you are saying, as well as the title of his talk, he would most certainly not qualify as a right-wing / conservative speaker (either based on his resume or the topic he chose to speak on), so certainly in his case, I’m way off.

#7 Comment By ephalum On August 27, 2015 @ 3:57 pm

In all events, one thing I’d really love to see return to Williams (I’m pretty sure it no longer is active, it was called I think the Williams College Debate Union) was the organization that would put on debates featuring two prominent guest speakers, two faculty member, and two students. To me, the most valuable type of campus event is one in which two sides of a contentious issue are both voiced, and I loved the combination of outside prominent speakers with an in-house perspective. Williams should bring as many prominent speakers featuring as many different viewpoints as possible to campus, and all the better if they engage one another directly.

#8 Comment By esoskin On August 27, 2015 @ 5:04 pm

The value of Debate Union style debates is certainly something we can agree on. Those were terrific and they covered many of the same topics as the “Uncomfortable Learning” speakers, such as affirmative action, free speech. In fact, both Jonah Goldberg and Greg Lukianoff appeared in those debates.

At least at the beginning, when I was involved, they were very hard to organize because students and faculty expressed reluctance to: 1) appear in a setting where they would be challenged; and 2) take the “uncomfortable” side.

The debate group on campus is still the “Debate Union,” but I haven’t heard about one of the big sessions taking place in years.

#9 Comment By esoskin On August 27, 2015 @ 5:05 pm

Incidentally, Amanda Amert ’97, who we recently discussed, had to be brought in as one of the “student” debaters one year because of the difficulty getting students to participate. If I recall correctly, the Record lit into us for using an alum instead of a student.