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Letter to the Editor: College diversity offers education

Middlebury College alumnus Steven Nothern ’78 shared his perspectives on events surrounding the campus visit of Charles Murray (Addison Independent, March 20). Although I can easily find points of agreement with Mr. Nothern, I respectfully disagree in two important ways.
First, I do not believe that the College is “failing to educate”; rather, I believe that more education, for more students, has occurred in March 2017 than may have occurred in a similar month 40 years ago. Second, I do not accept that in making her opening remarks, President Laurie Patton “abdicated any sense of responsibility for the ugly behavior that followed”; rather, I believe that she was unambiguously committed in a very public way to respectful debate, discourse, and argument– whether before, during, or after Mr. Murray’s visit.
I joined the College community in 1973, perhaps a year before Mr. Nothern entered as a student. I experienced the intellectual life on campus during his college years. It may surprise younger folks and college students, though not Mr. Nothern, to know that we had wonderful, bright and engaged students in those years, just as the College has today. But there is at least one important change: the student body today is far more diverse in its collective experiences and perspectives than it was in the mid-70s.
Education is a beneficiary of that diversity, and, yes, sometimes conflict and divisiveness result. In that sense, the College probably mirrors today’s American society. President Patton is making every effort to ensure that any conflict and divisiveness within the campus community bears educational fruit — and that this outcome eventually leads to healing.
In openly acknowledging that her perspectives differ in many ways from Mr. Murray’s views, President Patton forcefully made a fundamental point: even when we strongly differ with the views and values of a speaker, we must not prevent others in the community from hearing, reflecting on, and challenging those views.
For her to pretend neutrality about Mr. Murray’s positions would be less than honest since Mr. Murray’s writings, addresses, and interviews have been in the public domain for many decades. There are ample opportunities to form opinions on his positions. For example, I just read Murray’s “Coming Apart”, and I have strong opinions, both pro and con, about his claims in this work and elsewhere.
As a recent retiree, I don’t have data about current views on campus. Still, I’m willing to conjecture that, quite aside from their varied political views, a substantial majority would, like Mr. Nothern, come down on the side of free expression and open discourse. Certainly, students, faculty and staff strongly oppose violence.
John Emerson
Middlebury

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