by Zac Gordon, Staff Writer, December 2021
Where’s the diversity of thought, and why does everyone seem to have the same exact ideas and views running through their heads?
Nobles aims to “Generate critical, creative, socially conscious thinkers”: this is the first bullet point of the Nobles mission statement, but many might say that they do not find themselves thinking critically – rather, they are learning to recite an opinion.
Here’s an example of the problem: Nobles used to invite speakers to give talks during long assembly in previous years, but has recently stopped. Is this because the speakers were too controversial, or because the school didn’t see the need for them anymore?
Recent controversies involving guest speakers at schools have called into question the criteria for speakers who are invited onto campuses. One incident occurred on our own campus when we hosted a guest speaker who unexpectedly touted Hitler as a great leader.
This speaker’s words went against the principles of our community. However, this one harmful speaker should not reflect controversial discussions as a whole, and thus assembly speakers should not be canceled as a result. When evaluating potential speakers we must look for those that will discuss controversial, disputable topics and engage us critically with their opinions.
Contributing to the administrative perspective, Head of School Cathy Hall, Ph.D., shared her belief that Nobles should not avoid difficult topics, but when considering a speaker, they should never invite someone who might violate community principles. “Controversy isn’t always a bad thing. What is a bad thing is inviting a speaker that is going to […] marginalize or hurt students. If this happens unintentionally, we need to find ways to process it as a community, but the intention should never be to invite anyone who contradicts community values, ” she said.
Hall argues there should be a selection process that evaluates speakers based on whether they could be harmful to our community rather than whether their ideas are foreign to our community.
She states, “If there’s a suggestion that someone will come in, we have criteria that [are] values-based. This means the criteria [are] not necessarily avoiding controversy.” As a final point, she added that controversy is only valuable if the community has “a chance to actually talk about it.” As assembly does not always offer the space for healthy processing after a speaker, it is important to avoid situations that could cause a student distress.
The discussion period following assembly is just as crucial as the assembly itself, as it gives students a chance to respond, process, and discuss the thought-provoking comments contributed by the speaker. To this end, we as students must place more weight on critically engaging in assemblies as we continue to pressure the administration to bring in more provocative speakers.
One of the themes which Hall discussed was the issue of cancel culture. I believe the fear of being “cancelled” has the potential to stifle conversations we have on campus. I am afraid that as we move into a world where these fears become commonplace, we will lose one of the most influential aspects of our learning: provocative and intellectually challenging assembly speakers.
When asked about situations where prospective speakers’ histories might be controversial, Hall stated, “There are certainly examples of egregious principle violations that would bar a person from being invited into our community. However, there are instances where people are immediately cancelled for mistakes that instead should be transformed into learning opportunities.” Taking this thought one step further, I believe blocking speakers simply because their beliefs don’t align with popular opinion is adverse to learning.
In fact, to promote neutrality would be detrimental to the Nobles community. Some might think the fears that drive cancel culture are a step towards a more productive and inclusive society, but in truth they force people into echo chambers and alienate all those who do not agree with a small minority of the population. Often when one feels uncomfortable, challenged, and upset, they generate the most meaningful conversations. Without controversial debate, society will be without diverse ideas or innovation.
An example of a controversial discussion I believe Nobles should have is one relating the precursers to the Holocaust to the current surge in white supremacy. A Holocaust survivor could share their experiences and perspective on the rise of alt-right extremism in modern day America.
Such a speaker would stimulate discussion amongst the Nobles community by forcing us to reconsider our current political climate and its connection to atrocities committed nearly a century ago. This could also force us to evaluate our own political choices and how we can become more socially informed.
Hall suggests that having a speaker come in and address a class or a group of classes would be a healthier way to process a speaker’s opinion. However, if the goal of inviting a speaker is to broaden our perspectives, introducing them only to a small group of students who are already discussing the issue at-hand will not achieve this goal. In contrast to classroom settings, engaging with speakers during assembly would allow the entire student body to participate in discussion simultaneously.
It is an invigorating feeling to leave an assembly deep in thought, eager to research and learn more. Maybe some people’s perspectives shift or their ideas are challenged, or maybe their ideas were supported and they have an entirely new argument they can use when debating an issue.
It would be a safe bet to assume that on the journey to a more evolved perspective, you or others around you have felt uncomfortable at times. It would be surprising if a majority of our community did not enjoy leaving assemblies feeling engaged in a communal discussion that spans the rest of the week, if not the year.
Some students may counter that they feel uncomfortable listening to controversial speakers, but as Widmayer Trente Et Un (Class II) put it, “The only way to grow in an environment is to feel uncomfortable.” This is not to say students should feel marginalized or targeted by speaker’s comments, but rather intellectually challenged. Additionally, the administration must prepare the community for a speaker before they arrive, so rather than catch the community off guard with controversy, they emphasize the intended learning experience.
So far at assembly, we have been lucky to hear from successful graduates, teachers, and speakers who are inspirational leaders as well as deep, ethical thinkers. I hope that we can continue to benefit from this intellectual stimulation as it is an important aspect of our education. Keeping an open mind and embracing controversy and diversity of thought should be of the utmost importance. It is our responsibility as students to embrace intellectual discomfort and not shy away from discussions based on controversy, in assemblies and beyond.