I was sitting in class recently and the lecture lent itself to a rather charged debate about the definition of terrorism, what makes a terrorist and whether or not their actions/beliefs are delusional or psychotic. I enjoy causing heated discussion in class simply because people tend to drop the politically correct crap and say what they are really thinking; this was no exception. As I threw a biting response across the room one of the students responded quickly with an attack on my political persuasion (and where I’m from). This always humors me because it screams, “I can’t refute what you just said and I’m really pissed off about it so I’m going to attack you personally!”
As immature as this was, what I was most struck by was the class’s response – or lack there of. No one came to my aid – no one said anything at all. A few people chuckled and others smiled but no one said anything of substance to point out the absurdity of what had just been said. Was I really expecting people to stand up for me? No. But why not? Why can we not help each other out? Why can we not share what we believe in?
In an era where loyalty to party politics is falling by the wayside it is extremely important for people of similar persuasion to stick together. People should not be shy about what they believe in. No classroom should be creating an environment where people feel ostracized and uncomfortable voicing their opinions, regardless of what those opinions may be, and I don’t just mean politically. The idea that people do not feel at liberty to say what they feel in a classroom, which should be the most open forum for discussion, is disturbing.
I can acknowledge that this could partly be due to apathy and partly due to students not wanting to differ in opinion with the professor for fear of a lower grade. Still, that is no excuse for a lack of classroom discussion in an institution of higher learning.
On occasion, students do have a valid reason for not speaking out as much as they should. Some people do not want to share their opinions in class due to the sometimes pretentious nature of other students. I can understand not wanting to be judged or feeling like you have to say what you are thinking in a way that will make you sound smart. Still others do not want to share because they are in a lecture hall with 150 kids and they fear public speaking. This too is legitimate.
However, sometimes it is the professor who, purposefully or otherwise, creates an environment where students do not feel comfortable interjecting their opinions into controversial lectures or even contributing to class discussions. This is unacceptable. Our university is rather good about preventing this, thought there are still classes with students that feel disenfranchised. I believe most professors do not want this. From what I have been told when broaching this rather sensitive issue, the majority of professors want to create opportunities for students to be exposed to many viewpoints. So what can be done?
Professors can tell their students that their viewpoints – especially those differing from what the professor personally believes in – will not have any bearing on their grade, as long as they are presented logically and backed with arguments. This would be a good first step to helping those students who are afraid of repercussions for proposing a different point of view.
Maybe there is a student element to it. If students were to ask questions not to prove to professors that they are knowledgeable but rather to benefit the class and add to the collective learning experience, if would help foster more open discussion. There is no need to intimidate people with excessively wordy questions that take five minutes to decode. Also, students should not personally attack others for their opinions when they differ from their own. Such behavior is not constructive or conducive to further discussion. Students as well as professors can help change the atmosphere of a class.
In a perfect world when that girl attacked me in class the like-minded person sitting next to me would have stepped up and said something. But for some reason she didn’t feel comfortable (maybe she didn’t want to be attacked like me). But whatever the reason, it wasn’t right. Most classes are so diverse that we can learn just as much from each other as from the professor standing in front of us. So I am officially calling on everyone who feels strongly about anything in class to speak up. It seems to me that we don’t have anything to lose. Who knows, you might just help out a friend with a similar opinion.
The writer is a freshman majoring in political science.