Agree to agree

Natalie Comerford, Opinion Columnist

A hush quickly falls over the class as the professor asks a question — all of us look at each other in awkward horror, refusing to answer. This is a regular occurrence in many of the humanities classes I’ve been in, especially those that center around gender or race. Soon enough, the professor starts to speak again, and class discussion is restored to boring normalcy. Just one thing is missing: disagreement.

It is hard not to notice, sitting in these classrooms day after day, that opinions feel somewhat restricted. Those who were itching to play devil’s advocate in high school sit silently in a corner, soaking up information without so much as a sarcastic comment. Possibly from a place of fear of social exile, it’s few and far between that a student challenges the class with meaningful disagreement. This fear at Whitman impacts our learning negatively. Without disagreement, cultures of intellectualism in the classroom are completely destroyed as we all agree to agree, like the moral subjects we are.

The issue of having your identity attacked in a classroom, either through readings or through discussions, will never be an easy one for students and professors to navigate. It feels these days as if anything can be offensive to a certain group, and disagreement from the rest of the class can be embarrassing for anyone, regardless of the content. One issue may be that once you start to study the different ways in which oppression works in our society, you can see that pretty much anything you say can indeed be oppressive. On structures of oppression, Professor of Philosophy Patrick Frierson says that “one of the things Whitman is pretty good at is teaching students that language that they think is innocent is part of structures of oppression.” He warns about the flip side: “what that does is it sensitizes people so that people recognize in views that they disagree with not merely falsehood, but also oppression.”

Recognizing oppression in opposing views can make it really challenging to engage with those views at all, much less in a constructive and positive way. When our individual identities are attacked, many of us respond with anger, which is a completely appropriate response. In many situations, anger is the only appropriate response. Anger at those who disagree with us about our fundamental identities is completely legitimate, but how does that translate into the classroom space? It looks different for every professor. Associate Professor of Politics Susanne Beechey explains that “there is a way we can idealize disagreement as a neutral or flat space. That’s a great idea, but I don’t think my classes ever live there.”

Beechey teaches classes that mostly center around issues of gender, race and sexuality. Beechey expresses that the safety and comfort of her students is her top priority over the potential learning of a student who may disagree with another student in a hurtful or oppressive way. 

The risk of a student feeling hurt by a comment made in class often overwhelms the need for free disagreement as a space for learning and growing. On the other hand, healthy debate makes a classroom feel lively and enjoyable. Our opinions being questioned or even attacked can be a great space for growth. What professors are trying to prevent is inadvertently creating a space where a student feels comfortable saying a slur or making an incredibly hurtful comment, because that is not conducive to growth or learning. This question is a double-edged sword, but it is hard to not see what we’re missing from a classroom where people disagree freely. Though it may be only in an ideal classroom that both disagreement and respect exist together harmoniously, trying to move closer toward a classroom where people can disagree, at least somewhat freely, helps all of us learn.