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Intellectual Stagnation in the Seminars at Columbia University: A Threat to Real Debate

Free speech is currently a topic of great debate at universities across the U.K. and the U.S., with many academic institutions taking measures to seemingly enable open forum discussion, whilst simultaneously infringing on students’ fundamental intellectual rights. Columbia College at Columbia University, in New York City, is yet another example of a school where fear of controversiality is so engrained in the learning environment that it threatens to undermine the very nature of academic discourse at the university.

The Columbia University Class of 2018 Facebook page has become notorious as the home of contention amongst students, so much so that it has become an in-joke of the Columbia community. Earlier in the academic year, a discussion broke out on the group, surrounding the validity of a student of colour’s view that they had more claim to a professor of colour than did their white peers. The events began with the student posting a request to switch into a professor of colour’s class for a required Columbia College course ‘Contemporary Civilisations’, which is already a source of controversy due to its white Euro-centric syllabus. The post generated hundreds of responses from students, sparking a debate over the importance of race in teacher-student relationships, particularly in the context of what is often viewed as a white-washed education system. However, what began as a potentially fruitful debate on the page, soon devolved into an irate comments section, filled with frustrated parties on either side. Discussion on the thread eventually became stagnant and faded away without any real progress. A similar situation took place in the graduating class’ Facebook group, where a prompt for discussion of feminine health services at the school devolved into yet another enraged forum. Talk of both online interactions became so wide-spread that the incidents even featured as punch-lines in the university’s annual satirical musical ‘The Varsity Show’, prompting laughter and applause from an audience all-too-familiar with such occurrences.

It is no mystery that debates situated on any form of social media rarely lead to intellectual enlightenment but this kind of stagnant back-and-forth is reminiscent of a YouTube comments section, not the discourse one would expect at one of the most selective schools in the U.S.. The acceptance rate for Columbia currently sits at 6%, admitting only the most academically elite students from around the globe. The intelligence of the students makes them highly capable of intellectual discussion, which is only added to by their richly diverse make-up providing a multitude of views.

However, rather than capitalising on this opportunity for varied intellectual stimulation, Columbia instead perpetuates an atmosphere where open discussion is a thing of myth and the same tired discussions are repeated with each incoming class year. The Facebook page events are not reflective of a discursive flaw in the students themselves but rather are a reflection of the school’s intellectually stifling environment, where students are forced into openly expressing their opinions only from behind the safety of their laptop screens. It is impossible for a positive intellectual community to flourish at Columbia when the only place students can freely vocalise their opinions is the void of social media. Important discussions, such as the ones outlined, should take place in the classroom on an interpersonal level, where they can be intellectually productive, not confined to a Facebook thread where they are destined for academic doom.

Columbia is fairly unique in that it requires students to take an orientation-week event ‘Under1Roof’. The program aims to help facilitate open dialogue from the onset of the students’ undergraduate careers by navigating differences in sexuality, race and economic status in order to create a positive learning environment. However, whilst Under1Roof outwardly seems to advocate for freedom of intellectual discourse in seminars, it soon becomes clear that, in reality, free speech in the classroom pertains only to selective areas of discussion. In Columbia’s academic environment, Under1Roof’s concept of navigating idealogical differences manifests itself as a general avoidance of such taboo topics of race, sexuality or gender, for fear of things getting ‘messy’ in the classroom or someone, God forbid, getting slightly rustled and having to defend their position. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule and some students are lucky enough to take a seminar with one of the rare gem Columbia professors who are unafraid of encouraging their class into precarious discursive territories. These select students can corroborate that it is the moments of heated dispute, in which they are genuinely invested in the subjects at hand, that spark positive intellectual discussion. However, the usual seminars students are subjected to at Columbia consist merely of two hours of professors checking off a list of pre-determined, non- controversial topics of conversation. This default resting place of intellectual plateau is certainly not going to shape the great minds of tomorrow. Columbia classrooms should be places where students are provoked and encouraged to constantly re-examine their views, not a belittling crèche for molly-coddled undergraduates.

It is the responsibility of Columbia’s professors and students to embrace contention and freedom of intellectual discourse, in order to avoid classrooms resorting to simulated debates where students speak mainly to guarantee their participation grade in the class, rather than out of a genuine desire for academic self-betterment. How can the sophomore class of Columbia College be required to discuss the concept of free speech in Mill’s ‘On Liberty’, when the students themselves are not permitted any kind of discursive freedom?

Henrietta Steventon


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