OPINION: Intellectual uniformity fails Pomona College

The student bodies of many colleges today look more like America as a whole than ever before, and Pomona College has every reason to boast about its relative success. Recently ranked as the most diverse undergraduate institution in America by Niche, Pomona has attracted ethnically diverse students from all 50 states and around the world.

Despite these important measures of diversity, one glaring aspect of our campus remains incredibly homogenous: political thought. Earlier this year, Gallup polled the Pomona community, and its results suggest the campus has become an echo chamber.

Only three percent of students identify as “conservative,” while 77 percent of students identify as either “liberal” or “very liberal.” Beyond this overarching question, half of Pomona students and 37 percent of faculty feel that the college should “prohibit certain speech or expression of viewpoints.” When asked whether “they feel comfortable sharing ideas/opinions in class that are probably held by a minority of people,” 42 percent of Pomona students disagreed.

First, Pomona students simply don’t tend to interact with people who have different viewpoints on campus or in the classroom. Second, the small percentage of students who do hold these minority opinions feel uncomfortable, or unable to express themselves or to engage in debate.

This creates a dangerous situation where conservatives become viewed as a distant ‘other’ because they have no active voice on campus. In reality, they represent a large portion of the nation.

When conservatives at Pomona and other college campuses become marginalized, only the most extreme voices have the confidence to speak out. Average conservatives hide their political views in an attempt to blend in and avoid being stigmatized.

We see President Donald Trump’s tweets, and without having conservative students or faculty rebutting them, many come to feel that all conservatives must surely agree with them.

Policy proposals both on campus and in politics become stronger with debate and diverse input. If people fear opposition or challenge to their viewpoints, then perhaps they have far less faith in their own convictions than they care to admit.

The outside world simply does not look like Pomona in terms of political thought. If we spend four years interacting with people who generally think the same way, this does not prepare us for the free exchange of ideas present in every industry. If we don’t have to defend our opinions against any opposing voices during college, we will be ill-equipped to do so in the real world.

Self-described progressive Nicholas Kristof writes in The New York Times that, “when perspectives are unrepresented in discussions, when some kinds of thinkers aren’t at the table, classrooms become echo chambers rather than sounding boards — and we all lose.”  

When people regard all conservatives as uneducated, gun-toting Southerners, they don’t realize this stereotype can be just as offensive as the ones we often assail.

“Some people think the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks. I don’t agree, because I’ve been there.” No, this isn’t coming from a conservative academic or pundit. That was Bernie Sanders.

We have to return to a place in society where we disagree with the opposition but do not deem them evil, and this problem certainly exists on both sides of the aisle. When one part of the country labels the other part as wicked, everybody loses.

It becomes even easier to think that way and vilify the opposition when they become these abstract figures seen only on Twitter and TV. When one’s debating a roommate, professor, or friend, they soon realize that disagreement has the potential to be healthy.

This discussion, though, is not widely happening at Pomona today. Only about 50 percent of students polled last year felt comfortable “having conversations with people whose views differ from your own.” As long as discussion remains respectful, there should be absolutely no reason to fear dialogue.

Regardless of whether the average professor or classmate actually stifles debate and disagreement, that has become the perception held by conservative students. Only about 20 percent of conservative or moderate students feel comfortable expressing their political views with fellow students, and only 35 percent feel comfortable doing so with their professors.

Combatting this issue creates a stronger community, not a weaker one. It allows students to differ from the mainstream, fostering individualism and diversity of thought.

We can’t correct these issues by simply bringing more conservatives students and faculty to campus. If we were to do that under the current climate, it would just foster further polarization. The issue lies deeper. We have to change the culture that prevents people from sharing their opinions.

The Pomona task force that commissioned the Gallup survey sought out the best ways for the college to foster free speech in a safe, respectful environment. In their findings, they recommended that, among other proposals, Pomona create a first-year course on Intergroup Dialogue.

Pomona ought to implement this proposal, as it has great potential. If incoming first-years were to learn how to respectfully express themselves, how to engage in debate, and how to accept criticism, this could go a long way in helping Pomona students feel comfortable articulating themselves without fear of judgement or condemnation.

If we truly value tolerance and respect as a campus, then we ought to lead by example and think long and hard the next time we rush to judge those around us.  

Christopher Murdy PO ’22 is an intended International Relations major from Lido Beach, NY. He’s starting to think the Southern California weather makes up for the inferior beaches.

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