A conservative student announces to the class that his experience during his first semester in Duke’s Visions of Freedom Focus program dispelled prior concerns that he would be ostracized by his fellow students and penalized by his professors on account of his political beliefs. Instead of condemnation, he encountered spirited debate within an intellectually diverse community of friends.

A political progressive visiting Duke for Parents’ Weekend shares how her son’s coursework on the history of ideas of liberty and equality enriched their family’s conversations and enabled her for the first time to understand some of the reasons for the political positions of those who disagreed with her.

Two students who differed in many ways—gender, religious identification, ethnicity, politics—spent a class dinner arguing about a contentious political question. Though they passionately held different views, at the end of the dinner they hugged and remained friends throughout the semester.

These anecdotes reflect some fruits of my efforts to make my classrooms into places where the free, open, and frank discussion of ideas thrives. In the process of working with my students to achieve such a vision, I have learned some valuable lessons about cultivating intellectual freedom in the classroom.

Intellectual freedom does not simply consist of the right to say whatever you want. Freedom in the classroom is not what political theorists call negative liberty, the absence of external interference. A course where students were merely left alone to say what was on their minds without interference would not be worth much, certainly not the price of a Duke education. When I create my syllabi, select readings, prepare discussions, and invite speakers, I aim to cultivate conversations that will lead students to draw greater insights about themselves and their world. Leading and participating in conversations that illuminate truths about ourselves and the world is a skill as much as playing the piano. (Indeed, I have increasingly grown fond of Oscar Wilde’s description of university education as learning “to play gracefully with ideas.”)

This view of freedom means that, much like learning to play the piano, guidance and training are necessary for students to be free in the classroom. Pianists have their sheet music, professors and students, their syllabi. This guidance is important; the arbitrary exercise of power (or even the possibility of such) can destroy freedom. Students who are unsure what a professor’s policy is toward classroom discussion of controversial topics tend to self-censor. I make clear my commitment to open conversation up front; I model it by promoting lively discussion on the first day and throughout the semester. I try to keep my own political views out of the classroom and expose students to a variety of viewpoints through course readings and guest speakers.

Just as a musician may practice scales or licks, students and professors, too, may practice some skills or (to use an older word) virtues to ensure free and productive classroom conversation. The first is charity. While some worry that calls for charity chill speech and minimize disagreements, I have found that the practice of charity is an indispensable prerequisite for free, inclusive, and productive classroom conversations. Practicing charity means listening well to others and trying to understand their arguments and concerns. It means interpreting their words so that they convey their argument in its best and strongest form (sometimes called the “principle of charity”). When students and faculty choose to take one another at their best, constructive disagreements lead to intellectual friendships that benefit all.

The second is humility. Humility recognizes that we are all still learning and growing, and that we can learn from one another.

The last is friendship, a commitment to one another as members of a common intellectual endeavor. Much of the ugliness of our polarized political climate arises from the depersonalized exchanges fostered by social media. When you interact with your political “opponents” outside of the classroom and learn their stories, it becomes much easier to see them as equal participants in a shared intellectual endeavor. I have found the very human act of sharing meals to be an especially effective means of promoting such friendships. Meals are an important feature of my Arete Initiative-sponsored course “Democracy: Ancient and Modern” and Duke’s Focus program—the program, in which I teach, that enrolls first-year students in interrelated seminars and immerses them in a community of fellow learners. This coming fall my Visions of Freedom Focus faculty and students will hold meal-time conversations about the futures of conservatism, liberalism, and progressivism based on panel discussions organized and moderated by me and my fellow Focus professors.

In my experience, free classroom conversation among those from different backgrounds is more an achievement than a right. In today’s polarized political climate, it requires extra work and commitment by both professors and students. But as I have seen firsthand, the effort is worth it.

Atkins is the E. Blake Byrne Associate Professor of classical studies and associate professor of political science, director of the Arete Initiative of the Kenan Institute of Ethics, and the chair of the department of classical studies.

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