Listen and Learn

The art of listening has been known to build relationships, create collaboration, generate understanding and minimize conflict. Those who work to develop this skill truly want to understand the perspective of another -- a spouse, employee, child, friend, colleague. And yet, despite the known psychological, educational and societal benefits, this skill is in short supply on college campuses today. And when listening becomes a lost art, learning is threatened.

Just last week, Moriah DeMartino, a student at Hagerstown Community College in Maryland, was denied a request to start a conservative club on campus. DeMartino urged college administrators to reverse their decision and when they did not, she ultimately decided to pursue legal action to defend her First Amendment rights.

Why are administrators fearful of having students listen to another perspective besides their own?

Real learning happens when we allow the free flow of ideas -- all ideas, not just those with which we agree. Listening to the viewpoints of others is the way we open our minds, challenge preconceived notions and learn about the world. A college campus is a place where students should be absorbing a multitude of ideas and perspectives so they might develop their own outlooks. Providing access to only one view is tantamount to stunting the students' growth and inhibiting the education process.

And lately, it's not just college administrators who have been demonstrating narrow mindedness. Students at Columbia University have recently called on the school to implement "trigger warnings" or alerts about potentially distressing material that is presented in course curricula. Even classics of Greek mythology and Roman poetry have been targeted as potentially offensive to women or people of color. These warnings aim to protect students from ideas that may be deemed as disturbing or controversial.

But if we don't expose students to a variety of ideas and we censor material that is not deemed politically correct, students will retain their 18-year-old biases and mindsets throughout adulthood. Does anyone want that?

As we train future professionals and leaders, learning to listen to others must be part of the education process. The most successful doctors know how to really listen to their patients. The most skilled politicians truly understand what's on their constituents' minds. And the best accountants and financial advisors listen to their clients' financial goals before recommending a strategy. Silencing opposing voices will not train our youth for the professional world or for success in personal relationships.

Even President Obama has spoken out against this dangerous practice of not listening to the other side's view, decrying those who disinvite conservative guest speakers and prevent students from reading books with offensive language. Students don't need to be coddled from different points of view, according to Obama. He has urged educators to encourage polite disagreement, to promote civilized arguments so that students are compelled to hear what others have to say and consider different ideas in the process.

To reverse this disturbing trend, I believe all colleges should embrace academic freedom statements like the one the University of Chicago recently adopted; eliminate "free speech zones" that confine demonstrators or protesters to small areas on campus; and establish independent committees consisting of both students and faculty to make unbiased decisions on appeals and permits.

Our students and their future families, colleagues, customers and employees would all be better served if we encouraged them to listen... and learn.