The discourse deficit: Start challenging guest speakers


Jack Crovitz

“I hate when everyone agrees with me.” 


We heard that rare sentence last week at the Upper Division (UD) History Department Speaker Series event, when it was one of the first statements speaker Paul Butler made. He recognized that disagreement and debate are at the core of academic progress, but — judging from the speaker series as a whole — it is a lesson that Horace Mann needs to learn again. 

Even though history students are required to attend speaker series sessions and grades in history classes often depend on students’ ability to review the talks, many students check out of the event time and time again. I cannot blame them: the speaker series is meant to provide us with thought-provoking academic discourse, but often no meaningful discourse occurs. Few, if any, serious questions or challenges to our speakers’ revolutionary ideas are raised at any speaker series discussion.

This reluctance to ask our speakers serious questions robs students of the chance to participate in earnest conversations about critical topics and also disrespects the esteemed speakers’ intellectual capabilities. We need to reform the speaker series to allow real discourse to occur.

Last week’s session with Butler is a perfect example of our failure to challenge the guest speakers. Butler is an academic who calls for the abolition of the prison system, whose texts were recommended to students prior to his visit. He acknowledges that “prison abolition sounds crazy, reckless, and unsafe,” yet he was never questioned, even mildly, on this proposal. 

None of the questions asked raised any significant concerns about his self-admittedly radical ideas — in stark contrast to my two history classes, where many students criticized aspects of Butler’s writings and comments, particularly his proposed age-limit on prisoners and his seemingly cavalier statement about domestic violence. 

In his talk, Butler even endorsed Charles Dickens’s remark that physical abuse was a superior method of punishment for criminal activity than incarceration. Mr. Butler said that “[Dickens] said that [incarceration] is worse than hurting their bodies because it ruins their minds. And he was right. He knew that in the early 1800s, and I’m hoping someday everyone will know that in the 21st century.” This comment about corporal punishment was not questioned during the event. 

I suspect Butler wanted to be provocative to encourage us to think about alternatives to prison. But when a speaker can suggest that physical abuse and torture would be better methods of punishment for crimes than our current 21st century ones and not be challenged, then it should be clear we are not experiencing real intellectual discourse.

Our failure to challenge speakers’ ideas also disrespects them as distinguished and capable intellectuals. Respecting an academic necessitates offering them serious questions and giving their ideas constructive criticism. At the beginning of his talk, Butler even explicitly invited critiques of his ideas, saying, “I’m going to try to provoke you, so I hope you’ll tell me… what you disagree with.” I hate to imagine the disappointment Butler must have felt after openly asking for disagreement and receiving none. Our guest speakers deserve to be asked tough questions as evidence that we are taking them and their ideas seriously. 

How can we improve the quality of discourse at the Speaker Series? 

One solution would be for the moderators to simply pick more student questions that offer serious responses to the speakers’ sometimes controversial ideas. I have submitted such questions at almost every speaker series event so far (they have never been asked), and I know many other students have as well.

However, some moderators may feel uncomfortable or anxious asking questions that even mildly challenge our speakers. If that is the case, then it may be more constructive for moderators to pick student questions randomly. 

Even better, we could cut out the moderators altogether and allow students to ask questions by raising their hands in the Zoom meeting and talking directly to the speakers. This would be a far more engaging and democratic system and would encourage all attendees to really think about the speakers’ works and ideas.

Whatever path we choose, the speaker series must be reformed so students can voice their ideas and opinions to the speakers. It does not matter whether you agree or disagree with the speakers’ ideas or ideologies. Every student should support actual discussions during the UD History Speaker Series — both for our own academic enrichment and to respect our distinguished speakers. 

Real discourse is at the core of the liberal arts. If the speaker series continues in its current format, the Horace Mann security team, whose vehicles are emblazoned “Defenders of the Liberal Arts,” might need to change their slogan.