Competing perspectives

February 4, 2021

News, Forum

We must push our students — and ourselves — to understand and consider viewpoints different than our own.

By Ronald A. Crutcher, president

As a student, I always felt a tinge of excitement and nervousness when I walked into political science professor Reo Christenson’s class. Dr. Christenson was the quintessential professor, always nattily dressed with rimless glasses sitting on his nose.

At first glance, he could seem intimidating. Amid an animated lecture, he might suddenly stop and call on students without warning. Such moments, however, never felt like a threat, but rather an invitation to explore competing perspectives on the issues facing 1960s America. “What makes you think that?” Professor Christenson would always ask us. “Others have suggested differently.” Not once did Professor Christenson say, “I don’t agree with you,” or, “That’s wrong.” Whenever my classmates and I tried to goad him into divulging his own personal views, he simply looked at us quizzically, shook his head back and forth with a laugh, and said, “Not happening!” 

Professor Christenson believed it was his job to help students understand all sides of an issue so that they could come to their own conclusions. As a student, I found this approach challenging and even painful at times, but always instructive. I remember one class in which we had to tackle the subject of redlining, a segregationist practice of mortgage lenders and real estate agents to keep white neighborhoods white.

The issue was personal to me. My family was the second Black family to move onto our street in the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati in 1950. Shortly afterward, real estate agents began a scare campaign that prompted the flight of almost every white family within a decade. Seeing this appalling issue through its proponents’ eyes helped me learn about the federal government’s complicity in perpetuating this disgraceful practice. With this new knowledge, I was able to strengthen my own arguments supporting a more inclusive society.

Professor Christenson’s class was a lasting lesson for me; some of the issues have changed, but the imperative to engage with competing ideas remains and informs my approach to education. Each year, I host the Sharp Viewpoint Speakers Series to challenge our community to think critically about pressing issues of our time. This year, I welcomed pairs of thought leaders from across the political aisle, including Denis McDonough and Mike Sommers, former chiefs of staff to a Democratic president, Barack Obama, and a Republican former House speaker, John Boehner, respectively. My goal is not to suggest that there must always be compromise. Rather, at a time when any discussion around race or politics teeters on the edge of diatribe, we must provide students with role models who can engage in thoughtful, substantive, and constructive dialogue across divides.

Universities can and must serve as crucibles for learning how to live and participate actively in a democratic society. To succeed, we must follow the example of Professor Christenson and sharpen our students’ skills to engage a variety of opinions and perspectives. If we can navigate our differences with curious minds and demonstrate patience, discipline, empathy, and intellect — the building blocks of civility — I am confident we will emerge from this turbulent time in American history better equipped to strengthen our campus community and a pluralistic democracy.