Students must learn to listen to each other

By Dean Woodley Ball '14

Hamilton College bills itself as a place where students learn to “find their voices.” We certainly do our share of talking. Students coming into Hamilton learn to express thoughts from the vantage point of their “perspective,” a loosely-defined term that seems to incorporate the speaker’s race, class, sexuality, religion or anything else that might constitute the speaker’s “intersectional identity.” All these attributes, of course, play a tremendous role in making us who we are. Words like perspective, however, create a shield of unassailability. When we connect our thoughts, arguments or opinions to something as personal as our “perspective,” we make conversation almost impossible. We are unable to seriously grapple with each other’s ideas. Real interaction, which demands us to ask questions of our peers and, hopefully, results in learning from them becomes risky at best, rude at worst. Differences like race, gender and class, highlighted in Hamilton’s institutional statements about diversity , and those which we discuss with varying degrees of intelligence in classes, among friends, in group dialogues, on Hamilton Secrets, in The Spectator and elsewhere, have made it more difficult for us to communicate effectively.

And yet, I wonder if, perhaps, those barriers can be surmounted. Surely, we have wildly different experiences to share, interests to explore and ideas to articulate. We are here, in part, to learn to cultivate and celebrate our own individuality. Differences like race, class and gender are important aspects of that individuality, but I wonder if they’re the most interesting. John Coltrane was a straight, cisgender male person of color from a lower-class background, but is that what made him write A Love Supreme? Is intersectional identity what Coltrane referred to when he said that the highest ambition of his music was to “free humanity from its hang-ups?” Or are the differences we so avidly explore today the very hangups to which Coltrane referred? Ludwig van Beethoven was a straight, white male from a lower-middle-class background; is that what inspired him to set Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” to one of the most memorable musical compositions in human history? When Schiller wrote in his “Ode to Joy” of “all men becoming brothers,” might he have been grasping at something within each of us that is more deeply unifying than the political issues dividing Germany during his time, or the race, class and gender issues dividing our campus today?

In all this, I recall, Friedrich Nietzsche’s pithy statement that “one should not have points of view, but thoughts.” Points of view (or perspectives) do, without a doubt, exist. But they’re not the be-all and end-all. To converse only on our perspectives, without having the courage to express an idea influenced by that perspective is really to not converse at all. Conversation in such an intellectual climate becomes simply the participants’ setting their opinions side by side, with no playfulness, no exploration, no symbiosis or delight to be found.

My four years at Hamilton have taught me, perhaps more than anything else, that we are not  here just to find our voice or to simply articulate our perspective; we are here to overcome the provincial comfort those perspectives might otherwise afford. We’re here to discover other voices. But how do we do that? It starts by paying attention to someone or something (a friend, a book, a piece of music, a play—whatever it may be) without regard to how it benefits you, without regard to whether you agree or disagree, like it or dislike it, but only for what it has to say. In other words, it starts by learning how to listen.


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