Institutions of higher learning must encourage debate of diverse opinions

An independent panel at Wilfred Laurier University made the correct decision teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd did no wrong in presenting a clip of a debate about transgender people’s preferred pronouns in front of her class without first providing some sort of direction about how she felt about the subject matter.

It’s indeed disturbing an institution of higher learning would question the presentation of speech that might lead to an academic debate and even more puzzling the concern seemed to arise not from Shepherd lecturing in a direct attempt to instill bias or hatred in her students.

While the university’s president, Deborah MacLatchy, did well to reinforce Shepherd acted properly, she also mentioned in a statement issued this week the school needs to enhance its training for faculty and teaching assistants as far as their roles and expectations. Hopefully, this isn’t a veiled attempt to suggest that a professor could or should dictate acceptable grounds of speech and debate.

Certainly, in academia, there are right answers. Historic dates matter. Scientific facts have been proven. Most work is subject to a rigorous review process involving public scrutiny by experts who have spent years studying in their given fields. That said, the most important part of higher learning is to develop a critical mind and to be able to think and to speak for oneself. That comes from discussion and debate. Actions to stifle the expression of contrarian ideas or create a bubble around young minds does little to promote that end.

The idea of reasonable limitations around free speech — one that is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — has been much debated over the years. While it can be argued some speech is so egregious it should not be spoken because it may be vile, hate-filled, or just wrong, there is a value in all speech being brought to the forefront. It may allow the majority to re-examine its point of view and to deliver persuasive counter arguments.

Undoubtedly, there will be tension when competing or uncomfortable views are aired, but when people become engaged and have an opportunity to take ownership for their beliefs and their speech, there’s an opportunity for learning and for understanding if not agreement.

The events surrounding last year’s American election and the political and media climate throughout North America seem to illustrate the point. Much of the Democratic base supporting Hillary Clinton believed she was a shoe-in due to the messaging they received, not believing Donald Trump’s populism would resonate with more than fringe groups. Fake news allegations abounded on both sides. Some titles in the Canadian media also seem more slanted than ever before in one direction or the other.

If ever there was a time for our education system to be turning out critical, free thinkers, this is surely it. That’s not to say administrators, faculty or students can’t hold strong beliefs — indeed, it would be impossible not given learned behaviour and social bias — they’re just doing everyone, including themselves, a disservice if they’re not prepared to consider and examine a diversity of viewpoints with discerning eyes.

-Adam Bramburger