The Vulnerable Reader
“Around the country, students have been rebelling against certain assignments, topics, or speakers. Some students object to material presented and readings assigned, asserting that assignments are upsetting, triggering anxieties or violating personal beliefs.”
If this problem were isolated to college campuses, it would be bad enough, but it’s actually quite pervasive. This dysfunctional approach to disagreement reaches our halls of power. I fail to see the difference between students who refuse to learn from and about perspectives that differ from their own and Representative Paul Gosar, who said he would boycott Pope Francis’ speech to a joint session of Congress simply because he disagreed with it. But it is also a function of technologies and media consumption patterns that produce increasingly narrow echo chambers and can eventually serve as simply a mirror of ourselves. This cuts off conversation and stunts the best sort of vulnerability, which is a susceptibility to change, growth, and transformation.
If we’re going to push back against this, we should definitely include colleges, as learning, which is what colleges are about, actually demands vulnerability and engagement with different ideas that have the potential to transform us. But as Representative Gosar’s example shows us, we’d better not stop with colleges.
There are lots of ways we can begin to address this problem at both institutional and individual levels, but I’d suggest that we start with vulnerable reading, reading with an openness or susceptibility to change (I suppose this applies to listening, too):
We should all read things we don’t already know, and even read things we already know we’ll disagree with. John Rush, a candidate for City Council in Columbus, Ohio, recently “dared” a group of voters to read “broadly” and “empathetically.” In a recent meeting with Columbus area leaders, he took a tack opposite to that of Gosar:
I focused my time on the necessity of leaders in the private, non-profit and public sector to foster an aesthetic that counters the narcissistic inclination that can easily creep up in our hearts and that we can often find surrounding us.
I suggested three simple and pragmatic ideas that might help a little: (1) Read Broadly – I dare you to read a book by someone you know you will disagree with but do so with the mindset of learning something new and finding ideas you do agree with. Read empathetically. (2) Suspend Judgement – do not be so quick to pass judgment. Explore the why, wait, pause, remain quite when you most feel you need to speak… Invade the noise with silent reflection. (3) Find Common Ground – build relationships with those you perceive to be entirely different from you; relationships that intentionally go deep and intentionally look for shared values on which you both can act and engage in your community and world!
Rush’s challenge is a call to read vulnerably – to read in a way that is open or susceptible to change.
This is the sort of reading that Alan Jacobs writes about briefly in a short post on how his positions on gun ownership and gun control have changed:
This is the political issue that I have shifted most dramatically on in my lifetime. When I was a young man, I was something close to a gun-rights absolutist; but now I no longer believe that there is any Constitutional right to individual gun ownership, nor that widespread gun ownership is a good thing, socially or morally. I changed my mind about the Constitution by reading; I changed my mind about the social and moral status of gun ownership by listening to gun-rights advocates. They alienated me from their position in ways their opponents never could have.
I’ll add to these comments one possible strategy for vulnerable reading: Regularly reading a periodical cover to cover, engaging with each piece regardless of initial interest in the topic or agreement with the author. I have in mind here the kinds of periodicals that are full of thoughtful reflection, diverse opinions, and important news. My own regular cover-to-cover reading includes Books & Culture, Comment, The Hedgehog Review, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Of course, that’s not all I read, but I read all the pieces in each of those periodicals whether I agree with them or not, whether they make me comfortable or not, whether I find the topic interesting or not. So while I don’t find the articles universally agreeable, comfortable, or interesting, I learn a lot from them and they occasionally change my mind – two things that wouldn’t happen at all if I just skipped the ones that didn’t mirror my own interests and prior commitments.