Stanford communities that don’t self-select are most likely to be able to promote a culture of open debate.
This year has been plagued by a lack of civil and constructive discourse surrounding issues such as race, diversity, and identity. A significant portion of the blame is on us – the students. When given the chance to seriously engage with opposing viewpoints, we’ve chosen to preach to our base and reinforce damaging stereotypes. When faced with dissent, we’ve reacted with ad hominem attacks and cheap punches (see comments). The university administration has attempted to remedy this through OpenXChange – an initiative designed to bring the campus together to engage in dialogue over important issues of concern. Unfortunately, these efforts to improve the quality of dialogue have often fallen short. OpenXChange, for example, has been criticized by both the left and the right as shallow and placatory. Events hosted by student groups and community centers attempting to increase dialogue often cater to a small subset of the student population. In doing so they often implicitly support a single ideology and deter any dissent. For these reasons, it’s unlikely that the administration or student groups will be able to reform campus discourse.
If we do want to foster constructive dialogue we must turn to the freshman dorms. The diversity of these residences and the incentives they create for disagreeing residents to maintain personal relationships enable the positive conversations students on this campus need to be having.
More often than not, attempts to promote dialogue on campus cater to self-selected, homogenous audiences. Because individuals must choose to participate in most opportunities, those who attend already share common views or perspectives regarding the issue at hand. True dialogue is an exchange of ideas. In order for dialogue to be valuable, these ideas must offer competing or alternate perspectives on an issue or problem. Without some measure of dissent, these conversations reinforce – rather than challenge – existing assumptions or opinions. By drawing together students that primarily agree with each other, these events and groups stifle meaningful discussion by advocating a single narrative under the pretense of dialogue. In such an imbalanced environment, it is impossible to question or debate. These spaces act as echo chambers – repeatedly exposing individuals to a similar set of opinions, narrowing their understanding of the world and diminishing their ability to empathize with alternate perspectives.
By contrast, freshman dorms are among the most heterogenous communities on campus – intentionally assembled to represent the fullest extent of Stanford’s racial, socioeconomic, and ideological diversity. Unbiased and unexposed to campus ideologies, freshman bring a variety of unique experiences and new perspectives to their dorm communities. While their social lives, classes, and clubs introduce them to like-minded individuals, the dorm serves to bring them together with those they wouldn’t otherwise meet or befriend. By living next to peers hailing from radically different backgrounds and walks of life, freshman are forced to interact and engage with alternate ways of thinking or approaching the world.
In such an environment, a singular ideology is unlikely to hold a monopoly over the community. For every resident with one opinion, there are almost certainly residents who hold opposing ones. The constant influx of new perspectives and thoughts can lead to formative conversations between residents. Many students would readily admit that they learned as much from their peers as their classes during their freshman year. Through this ideological diversity, the freshman dorms are able to create dialogue conducive environments not found elsewhere on campus.
Freshman dorms supplement this diversity by creating strong personal relationships between residents. Dialogue on campus suffers from its impersonality as it often occurs between individuals who aren’t friends or between larger student groups. When two individuals define their relationship by conversations around contentious topics, it’s easy for discourse to quickly sour. A lack of respect and the tendency to view someone as purely the compilation of their political beliefs can lead to personal attacks and tone-deaf statements. Once this line is crossed, it’s incredibly difficult to return to a place of civility and respect.
In contrast, most individuals would agree that it is easier to have conversations about difficult subjects – such as race or identity – with our friends. The relationship, grounded in mutual interests, shared experiences, and compatible personalities, allows us to understand and see our friend as more than just their identity or politics. It creates empathy and enables us to understand alternative perspectives and put a human face to issues we’d otherwise see in the abstract. By engaging with an individual through a personal channel – and not a campus-wide one – we’re forced to directly address their thoughts and sentiments. It becomes significantly harder to hide behind standard ideological rhetoric. With a friend – whom we respect and trust – we’re more vulnerable, willing to make concessions and admit inconsistencies in our views. Friends can acknowledge core philosophical disagreements about an issue in a constructive and positive way.
If we want to improve the quality of campus discourse, we must start with Wilbur, Stern, Roble and FloMo. Though introducing divisive topics into a dorm community carries risks, the discord already present on campus necessitates these conversations. Events like “Crossing The Line” and dorm spotlights successfully introduce topics like race, identity, and diversity into dorm discussion. However, we need to go further and invest in more events that continue discussions about these issues: events that ask freshmen to consider hard questions about campus and national politics and encourage open discourse.
Stanford Residential Education aims to use residences as spaces to promote learning and exploration. Freshmen should have the chance to pursue these goals and enable their peers to help them better understand the world. In order to do so, there needs to be a more concerted and standardized effort across freshman residences to introduce such programming. Events that create opportunities for students to discuss important issues and their own personal experiences with them would go a long way in achieving this. By targeting dialogue on a “micro” level through personal conversations we can hope to have an effect on dialogue campus-wide. At the very least, facilitating discussion in freshman dorms would help Stanford produce more balanced, aware and informed students.