This Monday, controversial conservative figures Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon and Ann Coulter will arrive at the University of California, Berkeley to launch a four-day event they’re calling “Free Speech Week.” Their series of speeches is a response to the chaos that erupted at Berkeley last February when Yiannopoulos arrived to speak; administrators canceled his event after violent protests injured at least six and caused approximately $100,000 worth of damage to campus property.
UT’s campus isn’t free from such controversies. Just last November, UT’s Young Conservatives of Texas chapter hosted polarizing political figure Ben Shapiro in the wake of their highly criticized affirmative action bake sale. In the current campus environment of inflammatory orators and First Amendment tensions, students must consider how they will handle ideas which they disagree with, even ideas which they find offensive.
Ideally, college is a place wherein an individual can encounter new thoughts and experience the joy and pain of intellectual uncertainty, all in the pursuit of truth. The value of college, as opposed to the value of a trade school, does not lie in what the student learns, but rather how they learn to learn. On its most fundamental level, college teaches students how to ask and answer new questions and engage with new information, skills which are timelessly useful in life.
Isn’t it important then, that we students learn how to approach ideas which we find offensive? Wouldn’t the aftermath of the YCT’s bake sale have been more intellectually productive if students had been willing to hold a rational, calm debate? After all, we learn the most from those whom we disagree with. To create an environment of true learning, a college must cultivate a healthy diversity of ideas. There is nothing to be learned in an intellectual echo chamber, where every student parrots the same politically correct opinions.
There is much to be gained and only a little time to be lost from engaging with disagreeable ideas. By taking the time to listen to the ideas of an individual or group, you gain insight into their thoughts. Perhaps you will learn something new, find a flaw in your own beliefs or a valid point in theirs. Perhaps you walk away with burning questions. Perhaps you learn nothing; after engaging with an idea, it seems just as wrong and offensive as it ever did — what then? You have still benefited. By understanding an idea, its underpinnings and consequences, you are better equipped to combat it. You can clarify your own arguments and prepare to more effectively fight it in the future.
This coming year, put yourself in intellectually uncomfortable places. Join a political organization you agree with. Join one you disagree with. Go to the Texas Tribune Festival this weekend and listen to Wendy Davis, then Ted Cruz. When controversial speakers come to campus, don’t resort to a riot to shut down their ideas; engage with them. Hear them speak. Learn something new, or learn how to better confront their position. But whatever you do, listen.
That is how you will truly learn.
Leake is a Plan II and business freshman from Austin.