Students Must Allow Dissent, Avoid Admonition in Classroom

Robert Bonfiglio, Contributing Writer

Students at Oberlin College have a diverse array of interests and passions, resulting in an intersectionality often mentioned as a selling point on admissions tours. One common anecdote we share with prospective students is how chemistry students participate in guided research about the erosion of organ pipes. It is not difficult to find similarly collaborative efforts across the disciplines studied at Oberlin, whether it’s chemists working with organists, artists working with historians or dancers workings with Africana Studies scholars.

Many students come to Oberlin because they can see that their interests will be nurtured in this environment. However, during my brief time at Oberlin, I have identified a difficulty that accompanies the exploration of new interests. In the classroom setting, there are times I refrain from contributing because I am lacking the confidence to question. I can feel my curiosity being suppressed. So why do I feel this way? I was often that kid in high school who would be chided by his fellow students for asking a question in math class whose answer seemed obvious. But I was relentless, and day after day I would ask my questions. So what changed when I got to Oberlin?

There seems to be a common factor linking all Obies: We want to change something. However, every so often we disagree on how to make that change. These disagreements, when brought up in the classroom, often stifle discussions rather than add diversity to our learning. Little difference in perspective is offered, and the chance to learn for most, if not all, students in the classroom is severely limited.

Students criticize their peers for being lax with their learning. They try to make it clear that it is a privilege to be at Oberlin, and that the education gained here is a gift as well as a tool that can and should be used to help those less privileged than ourselves. Those who do not understand or recognize this privilege of being at Oberlin are shamed. They are not confronted thoughtfully, respectfully or critically. Students simply are not being helpful to one another. In our small class settings, students are more often than not teachers to one another. So why snuff another who holds a different, if challenging or upsetting, perspective? What is to be gained by ignoring or ostracizing them? That student’s learning is then limited, and in turn, those who won’t listen are thus limiting their own learning. Yes, oftentimes certain people should not hold the responsibility of needing to teach everyone about a particular experience, whether that be with regard to identity or history, but those who are ignorant cannot teach themselves without some form of guidance. There must be—to use a phrase I have been hearing more and more every day — a “generosity of learning.”

Focusing on a shared learning and teaching experience, Barbara Tomlinson and George Lipsitz write in their article “American Studies as Accompaniment” that “The field of American studies has always profited greatly from the fact that it does not speak with one voice, that people participating in its dialogues are not the same. The differences that hurt can also help if scholars develop an imagination of unity that does not require unanimity or uniformity. People do not need to be identical to identify and ally with one another” (American Quarterly, March 2013). Although specific to American studies, I believe their comments are transferable across all disciplines. They further state that “[t]he diversity of … experiences and perspectives teaches … lessons [not found] in lectures and books alone.” There must be an understanding among us college students that diversity is good, including diversity of opinion.

Many individuals get caught up in their privilege and cannot make room in discussions for other voices. As Lady Grantham says on Downton Abbey, “If you wish to understand things, you must come from behind your prejudice and listen.” Of course, this is the common saying we know all too well as “check your privilege.” However, she also highlights one of the most important processes of learning: listening, as well as knowing when to speak and when to listen.

Oberlin is a liberal arts institution, and we are all ignorant in some field or another. A favorite quote of my father’s goes, “These are the years to celebrate uncertainty.” We — as students, as teachers — must respect others’ choices in what they decide to learn, whether they prefer calculating numbers, testing flies, debating politics or writing poetry. The power that unites all these interests in affecting change is the power of collaboration and recognizing each others’ strengths. But this means there must first be an acknowledgement of each others’ weaknesses. Reflecting on my experience this past summer, during which I taught seventh graders, every day we would remind the students to want to make mistakes. What’s the point if you already know everything? How else do you learn?

So I am calling for students to voice their opinions, as well as their weaknesses, and then challenge one another. Do not be afraid to speak because there are individuals who will attack you for being wrong or ignorant. Trigger warnings are important, yes, but rather than shutting down the conversation, create a dialogue and space to breathe, where experiences and language can be be voiced. Just because someone simply disagrees with something does not justify a limiting of that student’s comments. Rather than limit, discuss. Share. Teach.

Learning is accompanied by being wrong and ignorant. That is the process, and Oberlin is inherently part of that process. Silence is valuable, but understanding when to be silent and when to speak is the goal; classrooms cannot operate purely in silence or in silencing. Be patient. Difference in opinion is valuable; otherwise, there would be nothing left to learn. That is what challenges and makes people rethink. As Henrik Ibsen writes in his masterful Ghosts, “There are many occasions in life when one has to rely on the opinion of others. That is the way in this world, and it is quite right that it should be so. What would become of society otherwise?”