Columns

Secondo ’16: Let live, let learn

By
Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, November 3, 2015

In light of the ongoing campus discussion of free expression, responsibility and identity, who are you? What do you stand for? We find ourselves in unsettled times here at Brown where people, places and paradigms are under incessant scrutiny in the quest for what? Resolution? Blame? Healing? Regardless of beliefs and identities, we have all been thrown into the fire, and we still cannot find a way to extinguish the flames together. At this moment, who you are and what you stand for is nothing in the face of what we as a community need to become and what we need to stand for.

You are nothing. Yes, nothing. This hollowing mantra was a part of a recent exercise in PHP1680I: “Pathology to Power: Disability, Health and Community” — a class that challenges how we see the world and the people within it. The question troubled me as I wrote out and thought of everything I considered myself to be, despite being confident in knowing exactly who I am. After etching out all aspects of my identity I could think of, it turns out my unsettled intuition was right. One of the class’ instructors professed that all the titles, activities and relationships we used to describe ourselves are irrelevant to our real identities. Channeling the Buddhist wisdom of emptiness, he explained that the self is not defined by the labels we give ourselves. It is ultimately nothing, allowing a person to transcend a falsely manufactured barrier to do and become anything. Immediate questioning and debate ensued as we all tried to grasp this concept that naturally bothered our Cartesian thought processes and trust in Western individualism. Hearing that my existence is nothing is confusing; thinking that my existence is nothing is unsettling.

But this uncertainty in the self is exactly where we find ourselves amidst the scorching flames of our heated campus climate. If we strip away the infinite constructions of identity that society, history and our neuropsychological hardwiring have manufactured and perpetuated, then what lays bare before us? Just your average Homo sapiens, nothing more, nothing less. As “wise beings” in this cleansing fire, we are capable of removing the clutter that has negatively manifested narratives and stereotyped identities by protecting what has brought all of us to Brown in the first place: learning.

My Brown experience would be nothing without hearing, listening to and learning about things that fundamentally challenge my beliefs and perspectives. The above snapshot had recently resonated with me, where now I have a new understanding of an alternative philosophical system, and I have grown my intellectual arsenal with new knowledge to apply this concept. I am now more informed and versed in an opposing viewpoint to my own beliefs and personal identity and am grateful to have such knowledge to make deeper connections and thoughts on the subject. The multitude of ideas and positions that have forced me to question and reassess my beliefs has been instrumental in my education as a curious scholar and conscious citizen.

From classroom discussions to late night debates, we need to be challenged to learn. “We need not be let alone,” writes Ray Bradbury in “Fahrenheit 451,” “we need to be really bothered once in awhile.” Choosing to dwell in unquestioned thought and protective groupthink is debilitating. A healthy learning environment flourishes where discourse and discussion freely flow.

Open-minded dynamism is the lifeblood of education. Allowing one’s self, beliefs and ideas to be poked and prodded by external factors is not meant to be easy or immediately enlightening. The difficulty through learning this way is accepting vulnerability. Exposing ourselves to oncoming waves of contractions, questions and disagreements is wearying and intimidating. Therefore we rely on the respect and decency of our fellow beings to foster a mutually constructive environment where everyone can openly but safely engage. Responsibility and civility must go hand in hand.

When such freedom and trust is hijacked to disseminate harm, the once-active sphere of discursive learning becomes both a victim and an accused accomplice of this unacceptable exploitation of the educational space and transgression against all within it. This ruins real learning in the most uniquely vibrant and authentic community of intellectually curious minds that all of us — students, educators, administrators — have worked so hard to create and hone here at Brown. It is time to leave the false barriers in the fire and rise together to resume our support for our community’s quest for scholarship.

So who are you? Are you a compliant bystander or an active believer of every person’s right to feel safe and freely engage in a positive, productive educational experience?           

Feel free to continue the conversation with Reid Secondo ’16 at reid_secondo@brown.edu.

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