Duke Known for Tolerance and Listening; is it True?

I think we can all attest to the fact that a large number of misconceptions exist about Duke University students. Assumptions are made all the time—that everyone’s parents are wealthy, that we spend all of our time in the library, that we’re elitist jerks—the list goes on and on. Luckily, most of these misconceptions are exactly that: misrepresentations of what students are actually like. Could it be though, that another misconception exists about Duke students that we fail to notice on a day to day basis? When I think about my friends, classmates, and the Duke student body overall, that word “tolerance” comes to mind. I assume saying that will prove controversial; many would disagree with me. But what I mean by that is, it seems like the Duke student body does a good job of listening to one another. Our campus is known as intellectual, open, and relatively progressive. So it would make sense that we imbibe other’s views and opinions readily and eagerly. However, could it be that the only reason that this perception of exceptional listening exists is because there is so little variation in opinion throughout Duke’s campus that we have grown accustomed to hearing and “listening” to exactly what we want to hear?

Overall, Duke provides a great medium to encourage listening among its students. Forums and lectures with speakers where students can ask questions and share their opinions abound at this university. Students are encouraged to speak their mind and share their opinions in classes and as part of their extracurricular activities. With clubs present on campus like the Duke Democrats, Duke College Republicans, the Duke Bipartisan Group, and especially the Listen First Project, it seems obvious that students’ viewpoints are encouraged to develop and be shared with others. These political groups partner together for campus events frequently—I myself have been a part of shared events that they have hosted. Both the Duke Democrats and Duke College Republicans frequently publicize the message of the Listen First Project. Additionally, our chapter of LFP is doing a shared round table event with the Duke Bipartisan Group to discuss current issues of contention in government, and we held a mock Presidential debate last semester where members of all of the aforementioned clubs were in attendance. With the presence of POLIS (Duke's Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service) on campus, these groups are further encouraged to interact, share their opinions, and listen to others through campus-wide events and meetings in which the heads of political organizations on campus convene to discuss issues on campus. These political-based clubs have fostered a sense of respectful disagreement and listening amongst students who may have different opinions on social and political issues.

As I write, I am sitting at a table with three of my friends. I casually look up and ask them whether, without thinking, they feel Duke promotes an environment of listening. They quickly say yes, but then, after thinking about, it, change their minds. “Actually…no” my friend Emily says. My roommate chimes in: “yes, there’s a political majority on campus, and we are open to hearing the opinion of that majority, but there’s a silent minority on campus that we actually aren’t open to listening to. The only type of information we’re interested in hearing is what we believe, and that’s created an echo chamber, where everything we’re interested in listening in just bounces off the walls of what we already know and believe.” I realize how right she is.

A pervasive confirmation bias disguises itself as tolerance for both listening to and accepting opposing views on this campus. We listen to others and accept their opinions; therefore, when we don’t really think deeply about it, we are quick to shut down anyone who claims that listening and openness are not prevalent at Duke. However, if we dig a little deeper, it’s clear that my roommate is correct—there is an echo chamber present on our campus. We are surrounded in our classes and social circles by the liberal majority (which I am admittedly a part of). Of course we listen to the views of those around us; the vast majority of them express ideologies that confirm exactly what we believed in the first place, and so we accept them with open arms. We are quick to assume that we are just, fair, informed students, so of course we are open to hearing what others believe. But in reality, the vast majority of information and opinions that we are exposed to confirm our own beliefs, and so we are subconsciously more inclined to accept them.

During class discussions, I find myself deeply interested in others' viewpoints. The problem is, these viewpoints are almost all similar to my own. Rarely have I been in class and heard a conservative viewpoint expressed. We claim to be good listeners, but what is our response when the conservative minority on this campus expresses their views about topics that we vehemently disagree with? Had a more widespread conservative presence existed on campus throughout my four years here, I don’t know if we still would have considered ourselves as good listeners as we seem to think we are now.

It seems that we are not as open to listening and really analyzing opposing viewpoints because so many of us share the same viewpoint that we have become habituated to hearing and accepting the views that we already know and favor. It is interesting to consider, but what’s more important to think about is, what do we do about it? As I’ve said before, Duke’s campus is already brimming with all kinds of politically-based clubs that vary in their nature and ideology on the liberal-conservative spectrum, and we can’t approach Duke’s administration and tell them to ensure the class of 2022 is more ideologically diverse. The truth is that Duke has a liberal majority, who is mainly interested in hearing more about what others in the liberal majority think and how others’ views coincide with their own. The only way to combat this is to increase student exposure to opposing viewpoints. While opportunities exist to hear opposite viewpoints, these opportunities for exposure are usually on a voluntary basis—it is up to students whether or not they want to join politically diverse clubs. In Public Policy, Economics, Political Science, and other similar courses, professors should make a point to expose students to two or more different viewpoints and have students debate these viewpoints in a respectful manner.  Even though there may not be an equal distribution of ideologies on campus, it is important for students to understand opposing viewpoints, and that can be achieved with relative ease in the classroom should professors commit to addressing the need for increased listening on Duke’s campus.

Rachel Stand, President of Duke Listen First Project '16-'17
March 2017