Notes from the desk: engagement is a two-way street


Oh boy. Where to begin. 

It only takes a minute on Twitter to read that a liberal arts education is too coddling — that it shields students from the real world, and places feeling over fact. We need Charles Murray to bring us the uncomfortable truth and hard statistical analysis. Right?

I’m not sure what classes the people making these claims have attended. Whether it be in Russian classes or with other political science majors, I find myself in uncomfortable discussions day after day. (In part this is because one big source of discomfort currently resides in the White House, which, even as an international student, I’ve heard is sort of a big deal). In my three short semesters at Middlebury, I’ve been anything but coddled; I’ve patiently read borderline dehumanizing arguments against reproductive rights, I’ve watched documentaries about exploited migrant workers and read Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of a Slave” until I had to take a break because I felt physically ill. 

I vividly remember going to class after reading Douglass. Instead of praising its progressive outlook, my professor grumbled at length against the editor’s suggestion that a female slave’s escape would probably have looked very different — that Douglass’ tale was, in essence, a masculine one. A reasonable inference on the editor’s part, I thought, given that Douglass was only able to flee the plantation after physically fighting his slave owner. Besides, didn’t Toni Morrison echo this in “Beloved”? 

My professor scoffed that one could find feminist theory in any work if one wanted to — and with that, the conversation was over before it even started. Anyone who thinks I’ve avoided uncomfortable conversations wasn’t in that classroom. 

The discussions around Charles Murray’s third (yes, third) invitation to Middlebury have, in many ways, been a heightened, fever dream version of those I have had in some of my classes. Like with the aforementioned professor, it feels like talking to a wall, except in this wall there is an elephant-shaped speaker that blasts the words “free speech” and “free academic inquiry” at you at regular intervals. 

I don’t take issue with either of these things per se. Having attended German schools for half my life, I know how vitally important it was for myself and my classmates to study the atrocities of the Holocaust in an uncensored manner, even as we grew older and grappled with the difficult views of Holocaust deniers. Those classes were somber. I don’t take that as a sign that we weren’t ready to engage, but that everyone in the room understood the weight of the subject at hand. 

I’m not sure the same can be said about the conversations surrounding Charles Murray. What’s more, those conversations do not feel like dialogues at all. As a board, we editorialized on the topic of transparency versus clarity, noting that the co-presidents of the College Republicans had not succeeded at providing either. By refusing to meet with The Campus in person, they have effectively put themselves above the kind of “diligent and respectful” engagement they themselves implored the community to participate in. 

When it comes to articulating these nonsensical, one-sided demands about engagement, Parul Sehgal’s review of “Human Diversity” for The New York Times hits the nail on the head. As she notes, the very first page of Murray’s latest work bluntly states that if you believe in the constructedness of gender, race and class, you “won’t get past the first few pages before you can’t stand it anymore.”

Read further into Murray’s work, and we find what Sehgal identifies as the book’s most revelatory line: “Now that we’re alone…”

“Now that we’re alone. This book is for the believers. Rigorous readers, skeptics, the unindoctrinated — you won’t be persuaded by “Human Diversity,” but why should that matter? You’re not even invited,” Sehgal writes in her review. “How’s that for a safe space. How’s that for an orthodoxy.”

Engagement is a two way street. There is an important and marked difference between discussing “unpopular opinions” (the sanitary way to say “unapologetic bigotry”) in the context of genuine academic discussion and giving them a literal, raised platform as will be the case with Murray’s upcoming lecture. 

I suppose my question is, what is enough “engagement” for the organizers of this event and what form do they want it to take? Is engagement not the myriad of op-eds published in this paper? Is it not projects like the Middlebury College Disorientation Guide and go/charleswho that keep alive the institutional memory of March 2017? Is it not the nuanced reviews of writers like Sehgal, who read his work in full and could point to its obvious shortcomings?

It seems not, and perhaps that’s the point. There is an implicit demand on the part of Murray’s proponents to have those he writes about confront him in person. For the bodies that his work looks down on to be physically present at his lecture, when it is clear from Murray’s own writing that he is not interested in “engagement” at all. 

Elsa Korpi ’22 is an arts & academics editor.