Though there is no doubt in my mind that I will be academically prepared for the next stage of my life, I have be- come hyper-aware of the paucity of my exposure to difficult ideas at Hopkins. When I say exposure I don’t mean any sort of formal curriculum, but rather the general uncensored exposure to a diversity of thoughts, people, and actions.
A few weeks ago, as an introduction to my Dangerous Books class, we discussed the use of censorship and free thought in twenty first century education. We read about both sides of the argument, hearing from Plato and John Milton. Milton’s argument resonated much more strongly with me. Milton argues against any type of censorship, saying “I can- not praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” I understood Milton’s argument to be that all speech must be free because it is only through struggle and discord that truth becomes worthy of its name. Without vigorous and free debate, he explains, real critical thinking disappears and is replaced by mechanical adherence to principles we’re simply told to believe.
This sentiment of uncensoring work then translates very nicely into the academic setting of a high school. Works that many people find reprehensible may have educational value, just as discomfort produced by a diversity of thought can have productive effects. However, Hopkins often shelters students from certain opinions and sentiments as soon as any form of discomfort or conflict arises. I claim that the decision about what to teach in the classroom and what to expose high school students to should not be based on individual preferences or comfort level. These efforts to suppress a disfavored or controversial view are often disadvantageous to emotional (as well as academic) development. An ardent example of this occurs in the relationship between the students and administration at Hopkins when it comes to protesting.
During my sophomore year, in the wake of the Parkland school shooting in Florida, students, school faculty, and other supporters of the cause nationwide walked out of school for 17 minutes to honor those killed in the massacre. Many Hopkins students wanted to participate in the event, but as soon as the administration caught wind of the protest, they immediately got involved. The involvement of the school administrators defeated the purpose of the walkout, completely deflating its intentional tension. The idea of a protest is conflict and is by definition adversarial, which this event no longer was. Though I don’t doubt the good intentions of the administration, their involvement ultimately avoided the conflict the event sought to cause and is first example in this article of the sheltering that often occurs.
Although the discomfort that often arises from less censorship can be incredibly beneficial and edifying, I think it’s important to draw a line between feeling uncomfortable and feeling unsafe. Though I am arguing for fewer restrictions on what Hopkins students hear, see, and experience, I think a line should be drawn regarding hate speech. Essentially, in order to have productive discourse, we must also be civil. I think the ultimate form of civility comes from defending our fellow human beings’ rights to dissent, as long as they don’t cross the line of unproductive mockery or hate speech. Being uncomfortable can be productive and offense can be good so long as we use them in the right way.
The purpose of removing censorship is to allow ideas the ability not only to inspire us but to make us ashamed. Though few people actually enjoy the feeling of being uncomfortable, going out of your way to experience new things or even letting new things happen to you allows your brain to create new neural pathways that fuel your creative spark and enhance your learning.
However, an interesting dilemma still remains. Although the benefits of discomfort are often clear, would we be better off to simply grow in a protected environment before experiencing the real world? As seen in nature, trees grow stronger when they are exposed to strong winds, but aren’t exposed to these winds until they’re more developed. Though it would be illogical to expose children to anything and everything at a very young age, I would argue that by the time we reach high school, we are strong enough to live with discomfort amid the strong winds.