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Old Main at Hamline University.

William Wesen/Wikimedia Commons

Americans are good at using any controversy to shore up our existing convictions. Recent events at Hamline University prove the rule, but if we pause to think, we might also learn something.

Here’s what happened: last semester, an adjunct instructor, Erika López Prater, showed paintings of the Prophet Muhammad that exemplify one iconographic tradition within Islam’s history. Knowing that for many Muslims, images of Muhammad are forbidden, López Prater offered explanations and opportunities to opt out. After a student complained, administrators labeled showing the image Islamophobic and effectively fired López Prater, who is now suing.

No surprise, in our either-or climate, that many reacted to these events as either defenders of academic freedom or advocates for campus inclusivity without really questioning the applicability of this framing, the definitions we were using or the inevitability of ongoing conflict between two important values.

To escape this stupefying standoff, we can get curious. What can such events—at Hamline and elsewhere—teach us that we don’t already know?

First, we lack a common language. Words are the tools through which we mark distinctions and build a shared reality. How does an idea differ from an epithet? Or a sense of belonging from a sense of comfort? A cultural practice from an identity? A community of learning from a family? When we don’t share a vocabulary, vaguely defined terms (“antiracism,” “free speech,” “fascism” and “identity” are good examples) obscure significant distinctions and then stand in for some unstated argument. Say the sentence, “I am committed to building an antiracist classroom,” and different listeners will hear a range of contradictory things, from “each individual will have an equal shot at learning,” to “white students, stay away,” to “this professor will handwave a lot to make herself feel virtuous.”

Learning from Hamline means attending to the specificity that language can offer.

Second, it’s hard to learn when your surroundings whisper, “You don’t belong.” Universities that are becoming ever more heterogeneous are asking how a residential, pluralistic community committed to free inquiry can most effectively function. This will cause conflict, especially at institutions whose basic rhythm—calendars, student traditions, curricular requirements, holiday celebrations and dining options, among others—arise from a particular tradition. Do we play sports or hold theater performances on Saturday? Open multiple kitchens? Require courses in emerging fields? Can we dethrone the practices of the tradition out of which we arose? Should we? What if one person’s religious practice violates another person’s sense of dignity? How can we build shared experiences and an identity as a campus while respecting all cultures and traditions? Pretending that this is easy serves no one.

Finally, because learning can be earth-shattering, it’s helpful to distinguish the “why” behind similar feelings. There’s a difference between intellectual vertigo (“I’m learning things about myself or the world that shock me”) and individual marginalization (“I’m not welcome as a participant in this community” or “I’m only welcome as a representative of a huge, diverse group”). Both differ from personal reactions to difficult subject matter. Institutions claiming to be inclusive must address practices that lead to marginalization. And as professors we fall short if we fail either to challenge students’ worldviews or to offer them tools to move from an initial reaction through a process of analysis to the satisfaction that comes with understanding.

When a Hamline happens, we can react or we can get curious. Reacting feels good and changes nothing. Thinking offers a way forward and is, in the end, liberating. People who care about free inquiry can’t be afraid to move beyond even deeply entrenched views to engage in it.

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