Editorial: Deconstructing constructive irreverence

Monday, September 10, 2012


At Convocation last Wednesday, President Christina Paxson gave a compelling speech addressing the importance of “constructive irreverence” in students’ academic pursuits. She advocated that students use the “unparalleled independence” we are afforded in a “thoughtful and responsible manner.” But Paxson also warned that disrespectful criticism “will obstruct your ability to learn and ultimately limit your ability to effect change in the world.” We believe this message is a laudable and important one, and one that Brunonians should keep in mind as we begin the new semester.

Paxson supported this philosophy by describing the University’s history of slavery and discrimination, noting that “liberty was not universal” when the University was founded. These past injustices lend credence to the importance of challenging unjust social institutions. She noted that it was University co-founder Moses Brown, not his brother John, a merchant and slave trader, who opposed the institution of slavery and “called into question some of the most ingrained social norms that prevailed at the time.” The constructive irreverence of Moses Brown and others like him is responsible for the greater equality we enjoy today.

The warning against destructive irreverence, so to speak, can often be forgotten in the joyful spirit of Convocation and the start of the semester, but it is worth revisiting as we begin a new school year. It is too easy to become complacent and never seek out opposing viewpoints, but the failure to do so limits our intellectual horizons. While we do not advocate taking opposing views just to be contrary, it requires bravery to differ from the norm.

While we may disagree with certain viewpoints, it is essential that we be able to distinguish the opinion from the person stating it. We must also be careful not to thoughtlessly reject viewpoints that differ from our own. Anyone with the temerity to articulate an opposing view deserves to be treated with respect.

Paxson included an anecdote about her own freshman year of college, when she set out to criticize a proof of St. Anselm only to be told that she did not fully understand it. When she eventually decided to argue the opposing viewpoint with “the respect that it deserved,” she realized that the suggestion that she reconsider her understanding of what she believed was “some of the best advice I ever received as a student.” As we start classes this semester, we can all benefit from the reminder that we should always be considerate of those with whom we disagree. Sometimes, the greatest intellectual benefit can arise from considering another point of view.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.