Fostering a Culture of Disagreement and Meaningful Dialogue in the Bi-College Community

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By DIANA POPE, Staff Writer

When I first applied to Bryn Mawr College, I fell in love with the idea of an honor code that would ensure a non-competitive student atmosphere. I felt as if the institution of Bryn Mawr would ensure that new students, regardless of their background, were welcomed and included in the community.

I came from a highly competitive school district where students would constantly worried about how they measured up in terms of ACT scores, grades, extracurricular activities, and college selection. In addition to this, my high school fostered a socially competitive atmosphere because girls would boast about their new clothing or what guy they were dating. I felt insecure throughout high school, and knew that I wouldn’t ever be at the top of the academic or social ladder. I chose to go to Bryn Mawr College because I felt like it would be a better “fit” for me so that I could prosper without worrying about others’ expectations. However, I quickly realized that my competitive personality and opinionated outlook were not suitable within the academic and social environment at Bryn Mawr.

I was highly involved on my debate team in high school, and took pride in being the “devil’s advocate”. My high school had an enormous amount of political diversity- I never had an issue finding a conservative, libertarian, centrist, moderate, or liberal in the room.

Beyond politics, my teachers always enjoyed implementing a culture of meaningful dialogue and discussion in the classroom. I frequently participated in “socratic seminars” on a weekly basis, where I would engage in roundtable discussions with my classmates. Sometimes these seminars could get incredibly heated, especially when my peers would discuss current events or religion. Despite our differences in opinion, I developed close relationships with many individuals and teachers because we enjoyed sparring over various topics.

When I came to Bryn Mawr College, I was shocked by how inhibited students were, reluctant to express their original viewpoints and opinions. If you ascribed to any belief system outside of the political norm (liberal democrat), other individuals expected you to keep quiet about your opinion. I have yet to meet a conservative who is open about his or her political viewpoints in the student community.

In addition to this, students are generally afraid to express their criticism about the institution itself. I was recently sitting in my dorm’s hallway discussing problems about the academic atmosphere at Bryn Mawr College, and students quickly told me to keep my voice down because other individuals might be sensitive to my opinions. I was confused about the lack of public freedom to express disagreement with the institution.

I have noticed this constrained atmosphere in the classroom as well. I’ve witnessed many moments during my academic experience where teachers will ask for arguments and/or criticism, and the classroom will go completely silent. During my time at Bryn Mawr, I’ve learned that students generally do not criticize the material that they are learning, or question the opinions of other individuals. I’ve seen very few instances of a confident “devil’s advocate” in the room.

To this end, I think that Bryn Mawr College needs to be more open-minded toward approaching disagreement with respect and dignity. I’ve always believed that it is completely acceptable to stand up for your opinions, and disagree with other individuals when it is necessary.  However, people tend to approach disagreement with antagonism in the Bi-College community, and see it as a source of conflict. Even though facilitating more arguments may lead to the consequence of interpersonal strife, the college community may experience more meaningful dialogue with an optimistic attitude towards disagreement.

To the same end, I think that the college community absolutely needs more class discussions, panels, social spaces, and forums where individuals feel free to express their opinions without fear of being chastised. This college atmosphere will ultimately impede individualism and innovation when individuals feel afraid to stray from accepted beliefs. After all, college is the place to develop new perspectives and grow as an individual; Bryn Mawr would adhere to its vision of fostering individualism if more people felt that it was acceptable to voice their original ideas and opinions.



  1. I’m a Haverford and Bryn Mawr (grad school) alum. When I was TAing at Bryn Mawr about eight years ago, one of my students came to my office hours. She told me she was a political conservative but was afraid to express her opinions on campus, not even to her “friends,” whom she said would turn on her. She (correctly) sensed that I was open-minded in my perspective and took the risk of telling me. The sad part is, I was the only person with whom she felt comfortable speaking. A part of her identity was suppressed, so that she could never truly be herself. At least not while she was at school.

    There is much talk of “safe spaces” today. But where is the safe space for differing political opinions, where ideas can be expressed and tested without fear of being ostracized or called by ugly names? The term “Bi-College Community” is used every day by Fords and Mawrters, but what does “community” signify? Is it just people who think a certain way–in favor of, say, big government, redistribution of wealth, and abortion rights–who are entitled to be included in this community? In such a case, are the concepts of “community” and “consensus” simply tools to coerce those who have differing opinions into keeping their mouths shut? Or do we embrace a wider notion that respects everyone’s right to disagree? If we do not, we risk becoming an indoctrination center, rather than a place where free minds can freely speak.

  2. Editor: I hope my connection to Haverford and BMC [married Carlene Chittenden, ’56] permits me to speak out on the issues Ms Pope raised in her “Fostering a Culture…” piece in April of this year].

    Ms Pope is spot on in her evaluation of the general trend in far too many colleges. I attended Haverford [’55 — ergo old fart], Temple, UC Berkeley, and Stanford[MAT ’71]. During those halcyon days there was generally the kind of give and take that Ms Pope describes at her high school. At Haverford we heard from radical libs and entrenched conservatives, and had vigorous debate in the dorms and elsewhere about their views — but I was never aware of any shouting or name-calling or attempts to censor.

    The founder of the National Review, William Buckley, had just written “God and Man at Yale” [can’t italicicize in this mode] and was invited to speak at the college. Would the BMC-Haverford audience be comfortable inviting him to speak today, were he alive and about the same age? Or have the institutions placed a quota on such as he?

    I’ve lived on the left coast for 60 years, and view 99% of what the so-called President says as words from “Lyin’ Donny.” But I’ve been deeply saddened by the elitist attitude that so many liberal institutions have taken towards men and women who see the world differently. This way madness lies.

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