Last semester I took Contemporary Issues, a course required of all Southern Virginia students in order to graduate. This course requires application of the reading and critical thinking skills acquired through liberal arts education to the events and controversies of today. Several professors teach it, each in their own way. For Professor Jeff Benedict’s section, we were required to keep up to date with the top stories in the New York Times, which we discussed in class. We learned about eminent domain and our legal system by reading Benedict’s “Little Pink House,” and “The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football” turned out to be full of both glory and scandal. It sparked discussions about the culture of celebrity student-athletes, dropped into fame, and the personal costs and privileges that they and their entourage experience. I’ve never been one to join my family around the TV, riveted to the start and stop of football plays, but I was riveted to this book. We also compared and contrasted the lives and values of Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin, drawing from their biographies written by Walter Isaacson and searching for what spurred them to greatness. Then, at the end of the semester, we read a fictional work. To top this all off with a work of fiction seems rather anachronistic, but it turned out to be perhaps the most relevant reading of the semester. We read “Go Set a Watchman,” the last published work of Harper Lee, who passed away last February.
WARNING: “GO SET A WATCHMAN” SPOILERS ARE AHEAD.
Students across the country read “To Kill a Mockingbird” as part of our primary education. We fall in love with the exemplary (albeit fictional) human being, Atticus Finch. We, like his daughter Scout, put him on a pedestal in our minds. This is why the publication of Lee’s sequel stirred such controversy. The readers learn, along with Scout, now a young adult who goes by Jean Louise, that Atticus is racist. Amidst the grief and anger of this discovery, Jean Louise berates her father and resolves to leave her hometown, a place where she feels she no longer fits in, behind. Her eclectic Uncle Jack intervenes. He convinces Jean Louise to slow down, to talk, and to think about herself. He tells her that she is “A bigot. Not a big one, just an ordinary turnip-sized bigot.” Lee then defines a bigot as “One obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion.” Uncle Jack forced our entire Contemporary Issues class to do a self-evaluation.
How do we react when faced with belief systems that contradict our own? Do offensive ideas disappear with deleted friendships from our Facebook feeds? Do we give others “elbow room in [our] mind[s] for their ideas, no matter how silly [we] think they are”? According to Uncle Jack, those are the fruits of bigotry. Interestingly, this measure of bigotry is not determined by how tolerant we deem ourselves to be, but rather by how others perceive us. Only those expressing opinions which depart from our own can tell us whether we come off as obstinate or intolerable. The only way to know how you’re doing would be to seek out and listen to feedback.
Of course, Lee’s interpretation of bigotry is just one of many, and obviously one that made me think. Harper Lee tells us that differences are to be celebrated, explored or tolerated; not shut out. One may certainly disagree with her. Perhaps ideas or beliefs exist which ought not be tolerated. The passivity of a population in the wake of a wrong may only perpetuate it. On the other hand, tolerance does not denote silence, but civility. President Obama expressed a similar view when he spoke at a town hall meeting last September:
“I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either — that you when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.”
And that brings us back to the course, Contemporary Issues, where we study current controversies and important events, develop informed opinions, and leave the classroom equipped to continually shape and refine those opinions. We learn to ensure that our learning never stops.
(Post by Lauren Hafen ’16.)