January 29, 2020

JOHNS | This Semester, Commit to Discourse

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This semester, Cornellians are returning to a campus familiarly abuzz with activity. There are no shortage of extracurricular activities and other opportunities to explore here: Cornell claims to have over 1,000 active student organizations and 60 fraternity and sorority chapters among its countless ways to get involved just about everywhere on campus, and members of all of these groups are arriving back in Ithaca this spring with fresh resolve and enthusiastic plans for the semester ahead. It can be exciting to consider the vast breadth of possibilities available at Cornell, but between course shopping, mapping major requirements and juggling commitments to countless other organizations that students are already invested in, it can sometimes be difficult to consider other  opportunities. It’s a familiar story; many Cornellians are hugely overcommitted. But as Clubfest approaches this Sunday and Cornellians take stock of their obligations, they should consider an essential question: How do I grow as much as possible at Cornell?

This is an important place to start. Ithaca can be very isolated — a city “surrounded by reality,” as the famous adage goes — and so it can be easy to lose perspective after just a few months at the University. Cornell is undoubtedly an intense environment, but it is not always intense in the right ways, and not all of its pressures are productive. Although it is easy to get swept up in a wide array of resume-padding extracurricular activities, constant quests for internships and jobs and frantic competition over almost every aspect of life around campus. These can be valuable pursuits, obviously, but it is important to remember that they are not everything. This college experience is meant to inform our lives and civilize us in the truest sense. No Cornellian should leave campus without dedicating him or herself to an authentic intellectual encounter, although it may not immediately jumpstart careers or boost GPAs.

I am fortunate to be entering my eighth and final semester in such an organization, the Cornell Political Union, where I serve as president. The Cornell Political Union is one of many debate and discussion groups within some of the world’s most prestigious universities; the Oxford Political Union at Oxford University is perhaps the most prominent but political unions exist at Harvard, Yale and elsewhere. Our organization has worked tirelessly to expose students to real-world and sometimes cutting-edge ideas in politics and philosophy. In the last few years alone, we have welcomed to campus Tiananmen Square protest organizer Wang Dan, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson and many others.

It has been a humbling and nurturing experience. Although there has been a great deal of abstract talk in recent years, much of it correct and well-meaning, about the importance of “free speech” on campuses, this concept is but a means to an end. This valuable maxim is ultimately hollow if not applied to the real world and transformed into action. The purpose of the value is not just to protect minority opinion; it is a means to expose ourselves to robust challenge, which forms the basis of any substantive academic or intellectual experience. We are meant to pursue debate. It is as essential to higher education as our professors themselves.

This column has written frequently on these themes, and thankfully many Cornellians still see the value in this kind of exchange, whether they engage in it themselves or not. But unfortunately, some self-described radicals have repeatedly rejected debate as a concept and have taken great pains to discredit efforts to talk things through with political opponents at the University. Many of them dishonestly charge that there is no purpose in dedicating time to extensive discussion and rebutting opponents that will likely never have a change of heart. While it may be true that few students will be truly convinced, this argument misses the purpose of such exercises.

On both the right and left sides of the Political Union, discourse is not a parlor game, nor is it a distraction from the challenges of the real world. Debate and critical inquiry is the methodology that allows us to interrogate real concepts and answer questions old and new. It is not just a method for understanding others’ perspectives, but also a path toward sharpening our own through direct challenge. To answer that core question — how do I grow? — we must commit ourselves to spaces of political and philosophical encounter.

As the values that undergird the liberal arts sadly wane throughout much of higher education, we must make an effort to fill the gaps, benefitting   from one another’s conviction and growing through friendly confrontation and reasoned discussion. To do so isn’t to win bonus points in the intellectual experience that is Cornell — it is to keep alive, as we do in the Political Union, the traditions of scholarship and advocacy that form the basis of intellectual growth and tolerance. Our debates enhance our advocacy on campus and elsewhere, and improve our efforts to turn ideas into action. After all, one must think before they act. Are we spending enough time thinking? Perhaps not.

The people we surround ourselves with, perhaps more than anything else, shape our time at Cornell. But I am thankful for having committed so fully to a debating society like the Political Union, and my caucus within it. There really is nothing quite like it on campus. The friendships I have made here, forged through lively disagreement within and across political differences, have been among the strongest I’ve made at Cornell. I suspect they are experiences and relationships that will last a lifetime. This semester, let us intentionally seek out these spaces — and bring discourse back to the forefront of a Cornell education.




Michael Johns, Jr. is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.