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Uncomfortable Truth

Zachary Wood ’18, the most widely published Williams student in many years, writes in The Weekly Standard:

“Zach Wood may look black but as far as I’m concerned, he’s white.” This was one of many disparaging comments posted on Yik Yak when I invited Charles Murray to speak at Williams College last spring.

Sadly, it wasn’t the first time a peer had questioned my blackness on social media. As president of Uncomfortable Learning, a student group that brings controversial speakers to campus to broaden dialogue around pressing issues of our time, I’ve rankled many black student activists.

Indeed. But Zach does get some protection (at Williams) from the color of his skin. Can you imagine what would happen to a white student?

Read the whole thing.

Does anyone know what Uncomfortable Learning is up to this year?

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Racist Provocateur

In The Economist in June:

Next consider the swelling range of opinion deemed to fall outside civilised discourse. To be sure, some opinions do, and the boundary shifts with time. The trouble now, says Zach Wood, a student at Williams College in Massachusetts, is that many people want to banish views that remain widely held among their compatriots, believing that, on neuralgic topics such as homosexuality, “It’s all said and done.” He runs a campus group that hosts challenging speakers. “Silence does nothing,” he reasons. Two of its invitations—to Suzanne Venker, author of “The War on Men”, and John Derbyshire, a racist provocateur—have recently been rescinded: Ms Venker was disinvited under pressure from other students, Mr Derbyshire by the college’s leadership. Mr Wood has been insulted, ostracised and (he is black) told he has “sold out his race”. Other prominent figures deterred or blocked from addressing university audiences include Condoleezza Rice, a former secretary of state, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim, and Jason Riley, an African-American journalist who wrote a book called “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder For Blacks To Succeed”.

Activists are entitled to their protests. But when, as at Williams, they decry counter-arguments as tantamount to violence, they stray into censorship.

I think that censorship is what they want . . .

By the way, calling Derbyshire “a racist provocateur” is sleazy. Most of his opinions (at least the ones Falk found objectionable) are held by a majority of people in, say, China. If most Chinese are “racist” — by the definition that The Economist is currently using — then it ought to start using a more useful definition.

Also, when was the last time that The Economist — easily the most important English language news magazine in the world — mentioned Williams? I can’t recall. But any article that talks so much about us and Yale is probably a net positive for admissions. So, well done Zack!

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Rather Sell Crack

Most famous current Williams undergraduate? Almost certainly Zach Wood ’18 for his role as president of Uncomfortable Learning. This Newsweek article tells his story in the context of broader trends on campus.

Until it was squashed by administrative decree, Williams College sophomore Zachary Wood headed up an on-campus lecture series called “Uncomfortable Learning.” Wood, an African-American who grew up in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., is a self-described liberal, devoted to learning and books. He liked inviting controversial speakers, usually from the political right, to challenge young progressives cloistered in a collegiate utopia at one of the nation’s great small liberal arts institutions.

Last year, though, Wood encountered the limits of free speech at Williams. First, he invited Suzanne Venker, an anti-feminist author and lecturer. After a campus and social media outcry, Wood’s fellow “Uncomfortable Learning” leaders disinvited her and then, to avoid further shaming on social media, resigned from the organization.

Wood then formed a club of one and invited an even more confrontational speaker, British-American writer John Derbyshire, whose contributions to the racial discourse include a snide white dad’s version of “the talk” black men give their sons about police. After suggesting that blacks are more “antisocial” than whites, he wrote that a small percentage “is ferociously hostile to whites and will go to great lengths to inconvenience or harm us,” while “around half will go along [with violence] passively if the five percent take leadership in some event.”

An hour after Wood advertised Derbyshire’s speech with a Facebook post, he was swarmed. On Facebook, someone wrote that Wood deserved the “oil and whip”—a reference to a punishment for slaves. Others accused him of providing a space on campus for “hate speech” and began debating how to file a complaint against him. When Wood replied to one critic, “So you would never bring a speaker on the far right, like Venker and Derbyshire? I value the work I do with UL,” someone retorted, “I’d rather sell crack first.”

A few days passed, the outrage kept building, and the university president disinvited Derbyshire.

Wood believes students need to hear provocateurs like Derbyshire in order to formulate their own thoughts and challenges. “What is hate speech to begin with?” he asks. “It’s what people don’t like to hear. Trump has the support of a considerable portion of the American electorate. With someone like him running for president, speaking on national television every day, saying controversial things about the most important issues of our time, it is imperative that we confront offensive views and afford college students the opportunity to learn how to engage constructively with people they vehemently disagree with. Shielding students from microaggressions does not improve their ability to argue effectively; it coddles them. At a time like this, uncomfortable learning is vital.”

EphBlog agrees!

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Wood ’18 on Student Activism

Thoughtful article by Zach Wood ’18 titled “The Character of Student Activism.”

Another important weakness is the exaggeration of the scope of racism on college campuses. It is fair to say that exceedingly few institutions of higher education are racism free. Racist figures are memorialized on college campuses and most students are not as attentive to issues of inequality as are student activists. However, there is a difference worth considering between episodes that are characteristic of an institution and isolated instances of racism and cultural insensitivity. For many activists, this distinction is overlooked. Equally troubling is the excusal of bigotry by African-Americans directed at other students of color. I’ve experienced this myself as president of Uncomfortable Learning, when students of color called me misogynistic and anti-black for bringing speakers to campus with controversial views.

Welcome to the party, pal! Campus activists have been calling us names for many, many years. Name-calling works. It silences the Other. It makes students hesitant to speak out, to share their thoughts on controversial topics. Do that for decades and, eventually, it seems perfectly natural for the college president to ban a speaker from campus.

Read the entire article. Do you think Wood is on the right track?

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Charles Murry Coming in March

This College Fix article on the Falk/Derbyshire is too right trollish for my taste, but it includes this bombshell.

For [Zachary] Wood [’18], he said he is focused on his next big event: hosting controversial conservative author Charles Murray in March. However, in 2014, Murray was disinivted from speaking to a private Christian college in Southern California.

“Is Adam Falk planning on banning Charles Murray,” Wood said. “I would like to know.”

Charles Murray at Williams College. Woo Hoo! That will be some uncomfortable learning. Comments:

1) Is Wood really worried about Falk banning Murray or is he trolling? It is inconceivable to me that Falk would ban Murray since Murry’s books are assigned in Williams courses and cited (approvingly) by Williams professors. Then again, I would have given 20:1 odds against Falk banning Derbyshire, so perhaps I am out of touch.

2) Charles Murray is John Derbyshire with a Ph.D. Now, this isn’t totally fair. No two thinkers agree on everything. But on the central topic that got Derbyshire banned — human genders and races differ genetically in ways that have huge effects on society — they are one and the same.

3) What would (will?) Murray say to the students and faculty who protested against Derbyshire? Probably something like this:

You’re at college, right? Being at college is supposed to mean thinking for yourselves, right? Okay, then do it. Don’t be satisfied with links to websites that specialize in libeling people. Lose the secondary sources.

Sound advice!

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Wood ’18 on African-American Authors II

Zachary Wood ’18, co-President of Uncomfortable Learning and an EphBlog favorite, wrote an article in The Nation titled “You Shouldn’t Have to Take an African-American Studies Course to Read African-American Authors.” Let’s discuss if for a few days. Today is Day 2.

 At most colleges in the United States, students have to take courses in African-American studies to read the work of black thinkers in an academic setting. Meanwhile, the work of white male authors is taught in virtually every course that does not focus specifically on the experience of nonwhites.

Well, isn’t that because the most important work in, say, philosophy was written by whites, or at least not by blacks? (Leave aside complications as to whether “whites” would cover people born 2,000 years ago in places like Turkey and about how the authors in the Indian/Asian philosophical traditions might be categorized.) There are only so many spots in the syllabus. Every time you add person X, you need to subtract person Y.

 I am a sophomore at Williams College, majoring in political science and philosophy. Throughout my freshman year, I took seven courses in the humanities and social sciences, from English and philosophy to political science and anthropology. Yet only two of the seven courses incorporated the critical thought and perspectives of at least one scholar of African descent.

I don’t know exactly which courses Zach took, but consider the lowest numbered course in Philosophy at Williams:

PHIL 109 T(F) Skepticism and Relativism

Intellectually, we are ready skeptics and relativists. We doubt, we point out that no one can be certain in what she believes, and we are suspicious of declarations of transcendent reason or truth (unless they are our own). Emboldened by our confidence in skeptical arguments, we claim that knowledge is inevitably limited, that it depends on one’s perspective, and that everything one believes is relative to context or culture. No domain of inquiry is immune to this destructive skepticism and confident relativism. Science is only “true” for some people, agnosticism is the only alternative to foolish superstition, and moral relativism and, consequently, nihilism are obvious.

See the link for more details. Thanks to former EphBlogger Joe Cruz for sharing the syllabus (pdf). Do you see any African-American writers? I don’t.* Nor should there be! If you only have 12 weeks to cover such a broad topic, you need to focus on the best and most important work. That no writing by a black author makes that cut is no more surprising to me than the fact that none of the 64 starting cornerbacks in the NFL is white. Is it really surprising to you?

*Even if there is an African-American writer, Wood’s and my points still stand. I have no reason to doubt that Wood’s intro philosophy classes had no black writers and every reason to believe that this omission is caused, not by the racism of Williams faculty, but by the relative merits of the works under consideration.

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Wood ’18 on African-American Authors I

Zachary Wood ’18, co-President of Uncomfortable Learning and an EphBlog favorite, wrote an article in The Nation titled “You Shouldn’t Have to Take an African-American Studies Course to Read African-American Authors.” Let’s discuss if for a few days. Today is Day 1.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s already infamous suggestion that blacks need “special schools” in reference to comments about Fisher v. University of Texas, is not only reminiscent of the pseudoscientific racism posited in Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve but also indicative of a dire lack of intellectual diversity in higher education.

1) The reason that EphBlog (and the ghost of Robert Gaudino) love Zach Wood is because he both practices and preaches “uncomfortable learning.” Even though he thinks that Murray’s research is “pseudoscientific,” he has arranged for Murray to come speak at Williams in March. Kudos! Murray may be right and he may be wrong but there is no doubt he is one of the most important social scientists of the last 50 years. I am proud of Zach and of Uncomfortable Learning and of Williams for bringing him to campus.

2) The critics of Zach/UL (especially Professor Sam Crane) should be asked to answer the question: Is Williams a better college for hosting speakers like Murray? Note that he (like the other UL speakers) are “free.” The College did not have to move money devoted to liberal/leftist/Democratic speakers in order to bring Murray. Additional funds were raised.

3) Is Wood providing a fair description of Scalia’s comment. I don’t think so. Consider:

Scalia’s comment stemmed not from random intuition but from research showing that a substantial number of black students would do better — and be happier — at schools less selective than the ones they are often admitted to via racial preferences.

The reading public’s response to Scalia’s point shows that few have any idea of this research or assume it was done by partisan zealots. An intelligent discussion of the Fisher v. University of Texas case now before the Supreme Court requires a quick tour of the facts.

Read the whole thing, written by the (African-American) intellectual John McWhorter.

UCLA law professor Richard Sander conclusively showed in 2004 that “mismatched” law students are much more likely to cluster in the bottom of their classes and, especially, to fail the bar exam. Meanwhile, Sander and Stuart Taylor’s book argues that the mismatch problem damages the performance of black and brown students in general.

Sander spoke at Williams in the fall of 2014, under the auspices of Uncomfortable Learning. If Wood would grant that Sander might have a point, then what is his objection to Scalia?

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Benefits of Intellectual Open-Mindedness

Zach Wood ’18, co-President of Uncomfortable Learning, on the benefits of intellectual open-mindedness.

I think many teachers can do more to help their students potentially reap these benefits. In many classes in the social sciences and humanities, even the best professors will tell students their personal understanding of a particular thinker, issue, or event. Personally, I do not think that professors should necessarily self-censor, be apolitical, or refrain from expressing their opinions. However, I do think that students would learn more if professors put more effort into presenting multiple perspectives on topics of discussion.

For example, if the issue being discussed in a political science course is affirmative action, I think students would benefit from having their professor present and explain arguments on all sides of the issue, not just for and against, but also those perspectives in between for and against that might endorse affirmative action under a different guise or altered institutional framework. While professors should feel free to express their viewpoints, they should be mindful of the degree to which doing so can influence the thinking and understanding of their students.

Read the whole thing.

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Venker Re-Invited, Has “No Plans to Accept”

Venker's website, via the Huffington Post

Venker’s website, via the Huffington Post

Notwithstanding EphBlog’s defense of the disinvitation of Suzanne Venker, the student organizers of the “Uncomfortable Learning” series appear to have quickly backtracked. In a post at Reason’s “Hit&Run” blog on Friday, reporter Robby Soave shared an email from Zach Wood ’18:

“Suzanne Venker has been re-invited to Williams . . . However, she has yet to confirm whether or not she’d like to come this spring.”

Unfortunately, Venker does not appear enthusiastic (although the reinvitation has received some positive press coverage, such as at Washingtonpost.com):

“No plans to accept since my speech has just been published, and the students can effectively see what I was going to say,” she said in an email to Reason. “Plus I can’t muster writing another speech anytime soon. As I say, it’s no small thing and I’m already behind on a book I’m writing.”

Venker’s speech is indeed posted at Foxnews.com, and it’s hard to fault her for being reluctant to reschedule after how this controversy unfolded. It’s asking a lot of Venker to check her pride at the door and speak now.

That said, EphBlog believes Venker should accept the re-invitation. Sure, the cancellation and reinvitation is awkward, but it has an obvious upside. Presumably she believes that the message in her “Uncomfortable Learning” talk is an important one for Williams students in their too-often protected cocoon. In light of the cancellation controversy, exposure for her remarks (both at Williams and beyond) is likely to be much greater than it otherwise would have been. More listeners = more value.

Moreover, as EphBlog has noted before, the students organizing “Uncomfortable Learning” deserve to be rewarded: they are taking on a difficult task in the face of immense peer pressure, pressure that keeps “uncomfortable” voices almost entirely excluded from campuses other than Williams that lack the tradition of a Gaudino. “One strike and you’re out” is a perfectly reasonable lesson to teach them, but so is “apologize, fix things, and do the right thing in the end.” And this is particularly true given the subject matter here: conservative speakers (especially those with experiential, rather than academic, credentials, as in the case of Venker) are heard so infrequently in liberal/academic environments that it should be a cardinal rule for conservatives: NEVER decline an invitation to speak
on campus.

Her reason for not speaking seems particularly flimsy. Although it’s true that students can “see what [she] was going to say,” how many students is she really going to reach that way. Foxnews.com is hardly a must-read for college students — and voluntarily searching out “uncomfortable reading” isn’t generally the way of the Internet. If she thinks what she originally had to say was interesting and valuable for students to hear, she should go ahead and deliver the same speech – perhaps tweaked to include mention (or rebuke?) of the disinvitation.

On this issue, as with his earlier post on the cancellation, the usually-reliable Glenn Reynolds, law professor at Tennessee, gets it wrong at Instapundit:

Reynolds on reinvite

Another question — what caused the organizers to change their mind and reinvite Venker? So far, there’s no public statement on that decision. Maybe it was feedback like this critique at the Williams Alternative from (former EphBlog regular) Will Slack ’11:

Nothing about this piece suggests that you learned something new about the invited speaker between the issuing of the invitation and the cancellation. Nothing I’ve read has suggested any coercement from any party – not other students, nor the administration, nor alumni. Nothing has provided evidence that anyone is being silenced here. If that did happen, then I will stand up and defend your freedom to invite controversial speakers, in good faith.

On the contrary, your choice is the worst of all worlds – and displays bad faith. You do a disservice to the invited speaker by rendering her preparation useless with a last-minute change. You do a disservice to your fellow students by inviting a controversy about ideas than preventing them from being aired. You do a disservice to the College and its alumni community by being so vague in your messages to the speaker that you inspire misleading articles like this one: [Venker’s Foxnews.com column].

Slack cuts right to the heart of the issue, which bears on Venker’s decision as well. Unlike the “Uncomfortable Learning” organizers, Venker does have new information on which to decide. But EphBlog is hoping she’ll do the right thing, and gracefully accept.

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Intellectual Engagement

cancel

I think that this is the clearest statement, from Zach Wood ’18, of the reasoning behind the cancellation of the Venker event. Comments:

1) I like Zach Wood! I hope this controversy leads him to be more involved in the public life of the college. I have been told (accurately?) that he is not even a member of the vast right-wing conspiracy, Eph division. (Sorry Mike Needham ’04!) Instead, he is just a Williams student who, following in the legacy of Professor Robert Gaudino, believes in the importance of wide open dialogue and debate.

2) I like (and know) the two unnamed students mentioned by Zach above. (At least I think I do.) Both are wonderful Ephs, similarly committed to dialogue and debate. Both, in their roles with Uncomfortable Learning, have done more to bring alternative views to Williams than any other students or faculty or staff in the last year or two. Kudos to them!

3) I respect their judgment that, given their goals, cancelling was the best path. They could be right! But I also disagree with that judgment.

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A Ring of Motivated Ignorance

We will have more coverage of this topic tomorrow, but here are some clarifications about the most widely covered Williams story of 2015.

Start with Instapundit:venkler

All right-wing Ephs love Instapundit, but he is wrong on the facts. Venker was not “dropped” by Williams College, the institution. She was disinvited by the same students who invited her in the first place, as Williams itself notes in this tweet:venk2

Correct. Despite the fantasies of the clueless weevils infesting Instapundit’s comment threads, Williams College barely cares about the speakers that its students invite. It, as an institution, cares about completing its $650 million capital campaign. That is what keeps Adam Falk awake at night, not the prospect of a visit from the Fox News junior varsity. With luck, Instapundit will correct his post.

Venker’s article is here. Background on the issue comes from this excellent article in the Williams Alternative by Zach Wood ’18. Summary: The Uncomfortable Learning student group disinvited Venker after (many?) students expressed (how?) vehement disagreement with her scheduled appearance. It is a shame that the group caved. As Wood eloquently writes:

At America’s top liberal arts college, we should not settle for petty personal attacks, unchecked confirmation bias, and Taco 6-like verbal harassments when we deeply disagree with people. We can come to terms with meaningful disagreements without making presumptions of guilt. We can critique each other intellectually and challenge people effectively without snidely suggesting that they are sexist, racist, anti-black, anti-feminist, or xenophobic. Fact is: All of us are biased. So before we discount what someone has to say because we think that they are biased or prejudiced, we should ask ourselves, as Socrates asked Plato, whose bias do we seek?

Comments:

1) Do I blame Uncomfortable Learning for caving in to student pressure? No. It is a free country and the students involved have every right to make their own decisions. Having your friends (honestly!) think that you are encouraging “hate” is hard, especially when you hold campus positions (like JA) or hope to contribute more to the Williams community in the future, all the more so if all you really want to do is encourage discussion.

2) Adam Falk, rather than viewing this as a public relations annoyance — there are plenty of rich and political moderate alumni who don’t like the idea of Williams cancelling speakers (which did not happen here!) — could seize it as an opportunity, a chance to demonstrate that Williams is the most politically diverse and intellectually open of any elite college. Invite Venker back, but in a debate forum, with her arguing over the merits of feminism with a prominent member of the faculty, perhaps Professor Katie Kent ’88. This would quiet the right-wing loons screeching censorship while generating much useful campus discussion. Even better would be to include students in the presentation, as in the Williams College Debate Union events a decade ago.

3) Wood ’18 makes reference to various Facebook threads. Are those public? Could some of our readers paste them into this comment thread (leaving out author names, if you like). Future historians will thank you! And our readers always enjoy reading the arguments of passionate Williams students.

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