This year we have seen remarkable instances of freshmen boldly and publicly making their opinions known as commentators for The Chronicle, precocious candidates for elected positions and creators of new campus initiatives. Certain freshmen have made controversial claims, garnering tremendous criticism from their fellow students. Some criticism was warranted; respectful critique of public ideas has always furthered Duke discourse. However, some criticism devolved to personal attacks, especially based on the opiner’s age. This type of criticism is inappropriate and, moreover, hurts dialogue. Being a freshman does not preclude one from participating in debates about Duke issues. In fact, it brings a fresh and needed perspective to the table.
Writing off freshmen too quickly has three major drawbacks.
First, blunt arguments that youth equals ignorance might backfire. Upperclassmen embroiled in debates with administrators claim that their perspective—the perspective that emerges from this special period in one’s young adult life—is uniquely valuable. We trust that administrators do not write off the student opinions, published in these pages and elsewhere, because of our age. We should afford the same respect to the youngest students among us.
Second, freshmen are newer to the University and are thus less entangled in Duke norms that can cloud their judgment. The distorting effect of the Duke bubble can potentially prevent upperclassmen from seeing important sides to an issue. Sometimes, the endless noise of campus culture wars can even stifle action through cynicism or desensitization. Freshmen can often offer especially new and enterprising attitudes. For example, this year, two freshmen in a Focus class about leadership and civic engagement began the Think Before You Talk campaign, aimed at reducing derogatory language.
Third, shutting down freshman opinions prematurely can discourage them from entering the conversation. Freshmen are particularly susceptible to the judgment of upperclassmen, and a harsh burn early on can suffocate contributions later on. All this contributes to a phenomenon of “funneling” whereby students fall into social and ideological tracks too early in their Duke career. If students truly want inclusive dialogue, then why exclude one-fourth of the student body? The sooner freshmen begin talking about campus culture, undergraduate education and social life, the sooner they will be able to learn the ropes and become productive, thoughtful leaders in the community.
Of course, like anyone, freshmen are capable of issuing incorrect and poorly argued opinions. In this case, upperclassmen owe it to freshmen to provide honest feedback, as an equal contributor to Duke discourse. However, upperclassmen should certainly not tear down freshman opinions, however misguided, simply because the opiner is a first-year student. And upperclassmen should certainly not be harassing freshmen—either online or in-person, physically or with words—as we have unfortunately witnessed this year.
So in a continual effort to make dialogues ever more open, honest and inclusive, treat freshmen contributors with respect. Yes, some of their opinions will be bizarre, offensive and downright wrong—but so are many opinions held by graduating seniors. These enterprising freshmen have a great deal to learn, and we would rather they approach the problem and misfire than not approach at all.