Author, journalist and former college free speech activist Zachary Wood speaks Wednesday at Evanston Township High School about the challenges of presenting a diversity of viewpoints on college campuses.
Wood was a leader of Uncomfortable Learning, a student group at Williams College in Massachusetts.
Though he describes himself as a liberal Democrat, Wood invited conservative speakers to campus, including, in 2016, writer John Derbyshire, who was disinvited by the college’s president, Adam Falk.
Derbyshire had been fired by the National Review in 2012 after publishing a column elsewhere that suggested whites should avoid associating with blacks because they generally are dumber than they are and dangerous.
Falk said Williams College was unwilling to provide a platform for Derbyshire’s views, which, he said, “clearly constitute hate speech.”
“We will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community,” Falk said.
Wood said that although he disagrees with much of what Derbyshire writes, he is passionate in his belief that it is more valuable to debate and disprove ideas rather than silence them.
A year after the episode, Wood testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on campus free speech issues, where he said he believes that students “should be encouraged to engage with people and ideas they vehemently disagree with.”
“I wanted to confront controversy, to clarify the issues that challenge people the most and why. I wanted to discuss the content of competing arguments and how best to respond to unwelcome ideas and offensive speech,” Wood said.
“At Williams, the administration promotes social tolerance at the expense of political tolerance,” he added.
“In my time at Williams, I cannot name a single conservative speaker that has been brought to campus by the administration. This fact is problematic precisely because the overwhelming majority of students and faculty on campus espouse liberal beliefs, thereby contributing to what several commentators have referred to as an ‘echo chamber.’”
“In classrooms, liberal arguments are often treated as unquestionable truths. In some cases, conservative students even feel the need to refrain from stating their opinion in fear of being shutdown, or strongly disliked for doing so. I appreciate the desire of my administration to make Williams a college in which all students feel included. Yet I deplore the state of free speech and intellectual freedom on my campus.”
Wood, 22, graduated this spring from Williams, landed a fellowship with The Wall Street Journal and has just been named an assistant editor at The Atlantic.
He gave a TED Talk a few months ago. His memoir, “Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America,” will be released on Tuesday.
It chronicles his tough childhood: his mother suffered from mental illness, his parents were divorced, and the low-income neighborhood he lived in contrasted sharply with the wealthy neighborhood of his private high school. He became adept at code-switching to navigate all terrains, and possesses a fierce determination to succeed.
During his appearance at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the ETHS auditorium, a presentation of the Family Action Network, he’ll be interviewed by Heidi Keibler Stevens, the “Balancing Act” columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
Thank you Zachary Wood for spreading this message. In a time of hyper-partisanship in this country, I always find it disheartening that people are unwilling to listen to those with opposing viewpoints and instead choose to protest and try to shut down such speech, quickly dismissing it. It’s not that everybody does this, but it’s the vocal minority that is heard more loudly and overshadows the masses.
As somebody who also identifies as a liberal Democrat myself (with some moderate leanings in certain areas), I have also seen firsthand college campuses nationwide not allowing conservative speech or trying to “out yell” them once they arrive. Everybody would be a little bit better off if we were more understanding of those with different perspectives.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” -originally printed by Evelyn Beatrice Hall to describe Voltaire’s viewpoint
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