On April 5th, Jason Riley spoke at Reed College.
Reed hosts several guest speakers every week. What makes this event unusual is that, unlike every other Reed guest in recent memory, Jason Riley is a conservative.
Riley writes for the Wall Street Journal as an opinion journalist and frequently appears as a Fox News contributor. A black Republican, Jason Riley primarily writes about immigration and race relations. His latest book, “False Black Power,” questions the efficacy of identity politics and representation. Instead, Riley urges the black community to focus on economic prosperity and fixing internal cultural problems. Because of these views, Riley was disinvited from one university and protested at many others.
I am a part of Thinkery–the group that facilitated Riley’s appearance on one of the most left-leaning campuses in America. I strongly disagree with many of Jason Riley’s political opinions and policy suggestions. Nonetheless, I’m proud to support his appearance at Reed College.
A college diploma doesn’t mean what it used to, but as someone who waited until their 30s to go to college, I can tell you it still means something. Right or wrong, a lot of people zone out when they learn you lack a diploma. Right or wrong, a college diploma confers status. The more elite your alma mater, the more status you obtain.
With the authority of a diploma comes responsibility, even if not everyone exercises it. The intellectual elite has status, right or wrong: they can and should use their status to enrich and preserve their communities. Entropy is a bitch; society requires active effort by each successive generation not to completely fall apart. Ideally all of us put in that work, but those with more ability to affect the community ought to be especially committed to doing so in a productive and responsible manner.
This responsibility falls on all majors–why else do STEM programs require some liberal arts courses? However, liberal arts graduates inherit a larger portion of responsibility. What is the practical purpose of a history degree if not to remember the mistakes of the past and and use that knowledge to help shape the future? Why major in political science if not to improve the political environment in some way? Why philosophy, if not to help us think better? Why art, if not to change the way their audience looks at the world?
A lot of liberal arts graduates don’t get to work in their chosen field. Some choose to participate in activism. A few work in politics, journalism, academia, or research. All of them exist in society and take part in political life in some way, large or small.
Whether your power and influence is limited to casual conversations or looms large in the public sphere, exercising that responsibility in a meaningful way requires talking to people in productive, non-alienating ways. This includes the 99.9% of the population who doesn’t agree with you on everything as well as the roughly 50% of people who disagree in almost every way.
Humans are violent and contentious creatures. We’re born knowing how to fight, but we must learn to disagree.
Learning to Disagree
Jason Riley isn’t a fringe thinker. He isn’t a reactionary with a small audience. Riley writes for the Wall Street Journal, one of the most widely-read newspapers in America and around the world. Millions of people read his column. He speaks to audiences nationwide. A lot of people agree with him. Even if your bubble insulates you from those people, rest assured: they are out there, they are numerous, and they vote.
Because many people agree with Riley, Reedies will encounter his ideas in the wild. They should know whether or not they agree with those ideas, and if they don’t agree, how to articulate what’s wrong with them.
Reed should teach its students how to disagree, not fight; how to debate, not alienate.
Reed College costs over $50,000 dollars a year. Such an expensive education ought to enable students to change the world if they decide to. Reed owes its students exposure to all sorts of ideas and the ability to disagree productively with ideas they disagree with.
In the face of pressure from Reed students, faculty, and the modern academic climate, Reed College has lately chosen to abdicate this responsibility. Thinkery, a student and alumni group, will continue to work towards changing that.
Jason Riley: the Aftermath
Thinkery didn’t advertise this talk heavily around campus. We were pleasantly surprised to attract a decently-sized audience through word of mouth. No protesters attended. Questions at the end of the talk ranged from friendly to challenging, but all were respectful. After the talk, students had the opportunity to challenge Jason Riley over refreshments, which many of them took. Riley did not find a comfortable or accepting environment at Reed college. What he found was a curious and questioning audience, respectful in disagreement. I have rarely been prouder of my college than I was on April 5th.
Based on public and private reactions after the fact, the next talk may not go so smoothly.
Thinkery will continue to bring speakers to campus who have opinions that run against the grain at Reed College. Whether or not I agree with those speakers, I’ll continue being a proud member of this group. Reed College refused to fund Jason Riley’s appearance in any way. If they continue to deny us funding, we will continue to draw funding from alumni and to solicit speakers willing to reduce or waive speaking fees.
We will continue to practice exercising our responsibility to influence the world in positive and productive ways.
**Read my opinion of Jason Riley’s latest book here.