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on the Bard College Berlin Student Blog

Credit: Plato and Aristotle in discussion (Credit: Raphael, from “The School of Athens”)

In the context of the two recent Liberal Arts days on BCB’s campus that sought to examine the meaning of liberal arts studies and the role of discourse within them, a recent op-ed for The New York Times titled “The Dying Art of Disagreement” was shared with the student body. In his speech, former Wall Street Journal contributor Bret Stephens details the allegedly tragic loss of ‘proper’ discourse on American college campuses, by which he means discourse which contains productive disagreements. He illustrates a world in which the ideologies of “junior totalitarian” college students engender the “bullying” of speakers they don’t like. He paints their vitriol against mostly conservative speakers as the result of an early “miseducation,” as the ugly culmination of an illiberal culture that has engendered a culture of ideological intolerance, in which those who would seek to educate themselves in higher thought irrationally bar the thoughts of those with whom they disagree. He decries a phenomenon that has been discussed ad nauseam in regards to U.S. institutions of higher education. What usually follows from these debates is an ambiguous call for the return to an alleged prior culture of ideological tolerance — a call that assumes such a time existed and ignores the fact that historically marginalized people’s voices have rarely been welcomed in the realm of this “tolerance”. Whether or not this is Stephens’ goal, his proposal ultimately amounts to a call for the rectification of the alleged “infantilization” of today’s youth in the US.

To support his arguments, Stephens calls forth his time at the University of Chicago, where he was taught the art of “interrogation.” His time there, he says, was not blemished by dogmatic instruction, but rather enriched by the freedom to interpret the texts he read with an open-mind: one could say he engaged in charitable reading before considering and potentially disagreeing with the ideas the texts presented. This form of education, so central to the project of the liberal arts, is being lost, according to Stephens. The liberal education that he received is being replaced by a reflexive, almost dogmatic opposition to those who  have unpopular opinions. At the University of Chicago, Stephens learned to “cultivate an open mind” and to “treat no proposition as sacred.”

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Two people wading through Irma’s flooding (Credit: USA Today)

Various Caribbean island states and the southern coast of the United States were devastated this summer by a sequence of catastrophic hurricanes. Killing roughly 241 people, hurricanes Irma, Maria, Harvey, and Jose wreaked havoc on the lives of thousands, literally sweeping away livelihoods and costing 100s of billions of US dollars in damages. Mainstream media outlets in the US have covered these disasters extensively with CNN reporting on the tragedies of fathers killed by flying tree limbs and dolphins found on front lawns. In reading these sorts of stories, I found myself troubled, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with their subtle ideological slant. Yes, mothers and fathers have been killed by these hurricanes; this is most certainly tragic. But in the narrative media tragedies being displayed to the public, I sensed a veiling of the further-reaching travesty of these hurricanes: that these events are the ominous manifestations of a changing climate.

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