Why college should be a journey of listening

Education

JUDY WOODRUFF: This fall, tensions around free speech and political sensitivities have erupted on several college campuses. "New Yorker" writer Nathan Heller wonders if listening differently might help.

Tonight, Nathan brings us the latest installment in our series "#IMHO," "In My Humble Opinion."

NATHAN HELLER, Contributor, The New Yorker: We've been hearing a lot about free speech on campus, yet the crucial challenge now isn't what we're free to express. It's how we listen. Solving college's problems today, I believe, paradoxically means listening less like wise scholars and more like travelers.

Americans who got out of town this summer might recall the feeling. Around the house, we know what we're listening for. An early clap on the porch means that the newspaper has arrived. The dishwasher making that weird sound again calls for the usual repair. We tune out the announcements on the subway.

When we travel, however, we listen differently. We process everything with fresh ears. There are no expectations, no old scripts to follow.

Part of the problem is language. Many people get behind the same abstract words, and yet their meanings diverge and harden. What about that worn-out word "diversity," which recently emerged in a dispute about an old mural at Oberlin College. The painting, a tableau of several cultures, including a black man playing the saxophone and a South Asian man charming a snake, had been created to celebrate diversity.

But some current students thought these caricatures stood for the opposite of diversity. They made variety exotic. The mural was eventually painted over — to the alarm of others, who worried about censorship of art.

If all sides listened to the debate like strangers in a strange land, what might they have heard? They might have noticed that the mural's right to exist as art — as a creative work reflecting its moment — had never been in question. Instead, one side thought the mural was racist. Another saw it as merely an artifact of the past.

"Diversity," as a concept, had been tossed around so vaguely that it was unclear which was the case. Travelers listening for the first time might not be so sure. We expect new students to have disorienting experiences when they arrive on campus. Yet if higher education is really going to be worth the name, the listening needs to happen on a broader institutional level, too.

Education, it's sometimes said, is a journey. Let's all make sure we hear enough to make the trip worthwhile.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Listening, good advice for all of us.

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