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What Would Gaudino Do?

Another excerpt from this excellent article (pdf) about Robert Gaudino.


Exactly. Does Sam Crane, does any member of the Williams faculty, do that today, really push Williams students to think hard about that “same set of limiting prejudices” they bring with to the Purple Valley? Perhaps. Certainly, they challenge students who come in with traditional/conservative/libertarian/Republican prejudices. And that is a good thing! Gaudino would approve. But he would just as surely mock professors like Crane if they declined to challenge the prejudices of progressive/liberal/leftist/Democratic students.

This point — the essentially non-partisan nature of uncomfortable learning — is one that many people fail to understand. Consider this comment from A Williams Parent:

[Gaudino] was determined to get the 1950’s and 1960’s men out of the cloistered, privileged, materially ambitious purple bubble.

Sure. But that wasn’t all he was interested in! Gaudino was a political philosopher from the University of Chicago. He was a Straussian before Straussian was cool. He was a “classic conservative.”

It was not spending a couple of hours in a lecture hall in Williamstown . . . But a lecture, a Q & A? Almost meaningless, an intellectual or pseudo intellectual postcard and little more. He should be read instead of invoked.

I encourage you to read him! For those of us who have, his position, were he alive today, is obvious. More importantly, the above comparison represents the same sort of confusion we see in this Record op-ed by former EphBlogger Jeff Thaler ’74.

What exactly is “uncomfortable learning” in a liberal arts education?

One answer: It is not someone standing in front of an audience to espouse an ideology. That is not dialogue, not Socratic, not an educator or speaker willing to reduce his or her own self in order to give space to the students to wrestle – verbally, publicly – with their own views, beliefs, biases, ignorance. Gaudino was a Socratic gadfly – while he liked to provoke discussion and at times controversy, he never tried to impose his own beliefs or ideology upon students, faculty or community members.

No one doubts that a class, ideally a semester-long tutorial, with a professor like Gaudino is a superior experience to a single lecture. The issue is whether a lecture — especially a lecture by a published author who would challenge many of the basic assumptions of the Williams faculty and student body — is better than no lecture at all. Anyone who reads Gaudino with an open mind would have no doubt as to his answer: Bring on the lectures! The more people who come to Williams and make students/faculty “uncomfortable” the better.

You really don’t know the story of Gaudino’s famous lecture, the single most disruptive event staged by a Williams faculty member in the last century? The one where he began by insulting all the women and freshmen in the audience? You don’t know the stories about how Gaudino, in his complaints about the founding of the Center for Development Economics, was perhaps the single loudest critic in his generation of the College administration?

As paraphrased by his colleague Professor Vince Barnett:

You have to look at your own life and your own convictions and your own opinions and ask yourself where they come from and why do I hold them and how good are they? And he kept pushing at the boundaries of these convictions in such a way that I’m sure it made a number of students very uncomfortable. They would make some adults very uncomfortable.

What sort of questions would make a progressive Williams student uncomfortable today? Not questions about wealth or privilege or the evils of racism. That is what she already believes, with all her heart. If you believe in uncomfortable learning for her, then you need to ask some very different questions.