We’ve been having a lot of, um, vigorous debates in Justice Project classes this fall, on topics ranging from trans-gender issues to sexism to sexual harassment. It seems quite fitting that in a program called The Justice Project, we would have a lot of these discussions about kinds of justice. And, it makes sense that these discussions would get emotional for some of our students. These are complicated teens we have. Most of them are just a year or three away from legal adulthood. They are trying to figure out how to be a grown up at a complicated time in our society. Especially for those students who are homeschooling high school, these class discussions are raising for them important questions that they are trying to answer: who am I? What kind of person do I want to be? What do I believe?
Bret Stephens of the New York Times addresses this in his op-ed essay today, about how the University of Chicago stands out as a college that encourages students to embrace debate and discussion to learn more about the world and themselves. UChicago gained some attention in 2016 when the undergraduate dean issued a letter to incoming freshmen: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odd with their own,” wrote Dean John Ellison.
A year earlier, a UChicago faculty committee had issued a report on free expression at the university: “Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”
I want to applaud all our instructors at Teen Learning Lab: Lee Ferdinand, Leslee Dirnberger, and Ruth Kulmala, for plunging into the vast pool of teen angst to challenge these students to face uncomfortable ideas with intellectual rigor. I salute the students for bravely facing their classmates when they state an unpopular position, and I salute the students who are learning to hear these challenges and listen with empathy. For most of these students, I imagine this is the first time they have been challenged in their beliefs– but it is necessary for them to become fully educated individuals. Being educated means being able to understand a variety of different perspectives and views. To restate Bret Stephen and UChicago faculty and administrators: the goal of education is to make people think, not make them comfortable.
I am proud that Teen Learning Lab is part of your students’ high school education. Thank you for sharing your students with us.