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An open letter to Bret Stephens of The New York Times

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About halfway through Week 1, a family member emailed me a recently delivered lecture by Bret Stephens, a principled right-leaning presence on the New York Times opinions page and a newfound favorite voice in my politically diverse family. Besides his occasional climate skepticism, I tend to enjoy the gist of Stephens’ writing and respect many of his conclusions. However, this lecture, entitled “The Dying Art of Disagreement,” echoed a common and irksome conservative trope: that college campuses are fostering liberal tyrants and undermining the essence of American democracy.

Against the backdrop of a new quarter, I found Stephens’ argument to be especially frustrating. While I navigated my sophomore year schedule and slipped back into the hectically fulfilling life of a Stanford student, Stephens bemoaned the “elite university” as a “factory for junior totalitarians.” His portrayal of a liberal college education is so misaligned with my own experiences that I feel compelled to publicly object to his analysis. Of course, my 33 weeks at Stanford do not even come close to encapsulating the 21st-century college experience, and every school has a unique set of political dynamics — Stephens’ observations may ring truer at some institutions more than others. Nevertheless, I am confident that headline-grabbing controversies do not define the essence of American higher education today. I hope that Bret Stephens, and all who share his dismay, will take comfort in my more optimistic outlook.

Dear Mr. Stephens:

Like you, I am perturbed that 20 percent of college students feel it is acceptable to block an offensive speaker using violence, according to a Brookings Institution survey that you cite. I am horrified every time that I read the anecdote from Middlebury College about political scientist Charles Murray’s visit and the chaos that ensued. No lecturer — even one with offensively incorrect theories about race and social policy — should be met with violence in an academic setting. As you prescribe, he should be read, discussed and vigorously rebuked.

Last spring, when I took a sociology class on urban poverty in America, we treated Murray just as you suggest. We spent a week reading “Losing Ground,” Murray’s criticism of the welfare state. Unsurprisingly, this did not create much of a buzz on campus, and no reporters flocked to our lecture hall. “Stanford Students Read Murray, Recognize Holes in Argument” is not exactly an eye-catching headline, although it might come as a surprise for anyone who adopts your bleak portrayal of today’s elite university. We deconstructed Murray’s thesis, zoomed in on his graphs and systematically pointed to the flaws in his analyses. To my knowledge, no one boycotted the lecture out of principle or objected to his inclusion on the syllabus. We read Murray with open minds, acknowledged the validity of some of his analogies and overwhelmingly rejected his conclusions based on reason.

This day-to-day work of academic inquiry is not breaking news. In most classrooms, it is the norm, which makes it regrettably easy to neglect. You lament that today’s college students are no longer inclined to consider various perspectives. With such a broad-stroked judgment, you cast aside the millions of students who spend their time weighing competing academic interpretations and crafting rigorous arguments. You erase the tens of thousands of classrooms in which critical thinking is fostered and trivialize the professors who impart these much-needed skills.

Students who successfully engage with challenging ideas are rewarded with high grades, not press coverage. Since everyday intellectual growth is invisible to the public, high-profile incidents like Murray’s visit to Middlebury create an unbalanced popular understanding of contemporary campus life.

Yes, the refusal to host controversial speakers is a real pattern that merits discussion. However, a different phenomenon is much more rampant on today’s college campuses: that of genuine intellectual inquiry. By unfairly centering displays of hostile close-mindedness, your characterization of the college experience obscures all other components of campus life.

At Stanford, the average day consists of class discussions and midterm papers, club meetings and volunteer events, meals with friends in the dining halls and deep conversation with dormmates of diverse backgrounds. In the center of campus, we have White Plaza, which I consider a model of a vibrant public square. Student groups set up tables around lunchtime, recruit participants and freely advocate their causes. I’ve seen pro-choice and pro-life groups set up camp next to each other — certainly with some degree of tension, yet with a fundamental level of respect for each other’s freedom of expression. In my opinion, these staples of college life are the groundwork of a functional democracy; at the very least, they certainly do not suggest that 21st-century higher education is a threat to the future of our free society.

There are a few more specific points from your lecture that I feel compelled to contest.

You claim that in college, “the primary test of an argument isn’t the quality of the thinking but the cultural, racial or sexual standing of the person making it.” Can you point to a professor who evaluates his or her students based on such criteria? You reminisce about your good old college days when students argued solely on the basis of reason, claiming it is “baroque” that today’s Americans preface their points with their identities: “As a woman of color, I think X. As a gay man, I think Y. As a person of privilege, I apologize for Z.” Even if we remove the language of identity, individual experiences undeniably shape our analyses — why not acknowledge the origin of our perspectives and allow diversity to invigorate our classroom discussions?

I’ll leave you with an anecdote that I hope you’ll find uplifting. Since you denounce my generation’s “protected feelings purchased at the cost of permanent infantilization,” you’ll appreciate the pedagogical approach of my political philosophy professor. He ends many of his classes with an attempt to make us uncomfortable with our own moral standing. Just last week, he suggested that if we accept an ethical framework but refuse to abide by it, we are fulfilling the traditional definition of “evil.” Many of my friends and I consider it to be our favorite class — even though much of the syllabus consists of “dead white men” that we, as good college liberals, are supposed to consider “agents of social and political oppression.”

In all sincerity, Mr. Stephens, I invite you to spend a day or two at Stanford. I’m sure you would be welcomed as a speaker — and our security costs are probably much less ludicrous than those at our rival school across the bay — but I invite you to come as a student. Participate in some class discussions, stroll through White Plaza at lunchtime and update your verdict on the “parlous state” of our elite institutions after you see campus life in full swing.

 

Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.