Duke University is getting it right.

Tommy Druen

Tommy Druen

As a Kentuckian, I understand I just lost a lot of readers. And those of you who have made it this far, I ask you to stick with me here.

Although I may read more sports columns than any other topic, this is not one. Momentarily put thoughts of Coach K, Cameron Crazies and “the shot” out of your mind and think about Duke, the institution; one of the premier bastions of academic thought in our nation for nearly 200 years.

I recently read an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by John Rose. Dr. Rose holds a PhD in theology and is a highly lauded professor in Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. The title of his piece was “How I Liberated My College Classroom.” 

The issue of political biases in college classrooms has always interested me. As a politically active college student, I was keenly aware I might need to temper my thoughts in case they conflicted with those of my professor. Fortunately, it was not really an issue for me, but I knew of others for which it was. So, Dr. Rose’s headline worked well and pulled me into reading the full piece.

I was surprised by what I read. Intentional or not, the word "liberate" has taken on a life of its own. I expected to read of a perceived liberation centered around race, gender or sexuality. I even thought, given the reputation of Duke’s divinity school, that it might be regarding liberation theology. And, frankly, had it been any of those topics, I might have found it interesting and appropriate, but expected. But it was about the liberation of thought.

College campuses have been the front lines of the American culture wars for 50 years. There was no side with clean hands as this became more prevalent. Conservatives would attack the celebrity professor who said something they found distasteful on a news program. Liberals would boycott on-campus speeches by guests with whom they disagreed. 

This outside aggression led to increased anxiety. At a time when many are muddling through the pressures of academic challenges, career decisions and young romance, added anxiety is the last thing these young men and women need. So, they retreated. They created safe spaces where political thought outside the perceived norm was quelled. And when no one offers varied thought, the common perception is there is only one road towards progress.

This is where Rose comes in. Among the classes he teaches is Political Polarization. What he realized when talking to his students was they were self-censoring. They were not as likely to fear difference of thought compared to their professors as they were their fellow students.

To remove that obstacle, he laid out a few ground rules for class discussion. Primarily, there was no canceling. No matter what you think about your classmate’s opinion, there was to be no social or professional penalties. Secondly, they were to always assume thoughts are expressed with the purest of intentions. They talked about humility and charity. They delved into current issues. The conversations were frank, open and, more than anything, allowed students who had been dead set of their own beliefs to see viewpoints from a different side. Whether they changed their minds or not is irrelevant. What is important is that Rose created a climate of how a civil society is supposed to function.

While most of us are not in college, that does not mean we cannot take lessons from Rose as well. How often do we revel in what only reinforces our preconceived thoughts? When was the last time you read a book, listened to a speech or watched a news program that differed from what you believe? When did you last have lunch with someone you know you have political disagreement with? When did you last assume the person with whom you disagree was voicing their opinion with only the purest of intentions?

We need to find the good in our fellow man and end the senseless bickering and hate over what truly are minuscule differences.

Justice William O. Douglas said, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”

The disallowance of true and public discourse by the state was one iniquity that led to the founding of our nation in the 18th century. Let's not replicate it by a cultural stymie of freedom of thought and expression. 

Tommy Druen is a syndicated columnist.  He is a 10th-generation Kentuckian who resides in Scott County. He can be reached at tommydruen@gmail.com.

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