Upadhyay ’15: An academic approach to free speech
As a student who transferred to Brown in the middle of my sophomore year, I’ve had the unique opportunity to compare my time here with that at another university. While I cannot really speak to the first-year experience in one of the 90 or so first-year seminars offered at Brown, my impression of these smaller, discussion-based courses is overwhelmingly positive. From my impression thus far of Brown’s commitment to its undergraduate curriculum, I believe seminars at Brown would be just as useful, if not more, than those at my previous school. For this reason, I propose that Brown expand its seminar offerings to students of all semester levels — not just to first-years and now, with the strategic plan’s proposal for sophomore seminars, second-years — to encourage discussion and debate, both of which are especially relevant given the recent on-campus controversies surrounding free speech.
During the first quarter of my first year at Northwestern University, I enrolled in a first-year seminar that dealt with regulatory issues in the United States. Several times each week, we were assigned readings related to topics like Pigovian taxes, CEO compensation restrictions, carbon taxes and more. Then, for the full duration of the class, we were allowed to debate freely while the professor served as a guiding moderator, ensuring that our talks were related to the subject at hand but giving us the freedom to express our views on various policies.
This class was instrumental in my intellectual development. The first thing I learned was that just having an opinion on something was wholly inadequate. In an open environment surrounded by students just as bright and motivated as I was, it wasn’t enough to simply speak from an ideological perch. I was pushed to read the assigned literature — often along with supplemental articles and papers I dug up on my own — build a thoroughly reasoned opinion and stand ready to argue and defend it.
No longer were my judgments preconceived by sweeping ideas of big versus small government or individual choice versus intervention. I quickly discovered that legislation, which is boiled down to blunt terms by many news outlets, is incredibly complex. Trade-offs between equity and efficiency, administration by states or by the federal government, constitutionality and budgetary concerns all hold importance. I gleaned an increasingly nuanced understanding of these political issues as I heard a spectrum of opinions based in thoughts and data I’d never previously explored.
I believe such discussion-driven courses should be offered at Brown to students of all semester levels and across disciplines for these exact reasons. While the forum President Christina Paxson held following the New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly fiasco was a positive gesture, one discussion filled with hundreds of students in an impersonal setting will not get at the heart of what I feel is the real issue at Brown. Namely, Brown students need serious intellectual humbling when it comes to political, economic and social issues.
Too often, I have seen students frame intricate issues into plain black and white with no real opportunity to engage them in meaningful discussion. Whether it’s hearing a student call those against the Affordable Care Act against insurance for the poor or another claiming those in favor of expanding food stamps are socialists, I sense a general atmosphere of somewhat uninformed views grounded more in emotion and political predisposition than in empirical evidence or research. Interpersonal seminar courses that require detailed understanding of issues allow for open debate in a setting unlike the Kelly lecture and open students to a breadth of ideas and thoughts from their peers. Courses like this align with Brown’s ethos of intellectual advancement and free discourse.
Administratively, these courses wouldn’t be hard to implement. With a writing requirement already in place, seminars could include several written compositions in which students argue their opinions on assigned policy issues. Some may argue that instituting courses to lay the framework for an honest conversation undermines the intellectual freedom Brown should already offer. Still, I would argue that, under the open curriculum, the students who do enroll in these classes are ones who, like me, feel the need for a formal setting to learn from and debate with my peers.
If it turns out Brown students don’t think these courses are worthy of their time, then enrollment will be low and the classes can be removed from the course catalogue. But I predict the two sophomore seminars established in President Christina Paxson’s strategic plan, as well as the ultimate goal of adding 12 by next fall, will be well-received by students. Extending these across all semester levels would be optimal.