Pluralism in Practice


Pluralism is hard.

Even under the best of circumstances making space for ideas and beliefs that are at odds with your own is hard.

Being for pluralism is easy. Being for a community where people who come from a wide range of backgrounds and represent a broad spectrum of beliefs is easy. At least at a place like Colby.

America is a pluralistic society and Colby is a pluralistic community and a liberal arts education is by definition about exposure to and engagement with different ideas and world views. Critical thinking is about challenging what we think we know in a thoughtful, deliberate, and disciplined way. Serious intellectual engagement is at its core civil and open and respectful. Easy. Simple. Clean.

But real life is messy.

It's one thing to say we're committed to being a community that welcomes and safeguards the rights of individuals to hold and espouse all manner of beliefs, but actually doing it is an entirely different thing altogether.

Especially when the beliefs and ideas being espoused are in conflict with what we believe.  When they are ideas that we find hateful and repugnant. When they are ideas that seem to violate our own sense of right and wrong, good and bad, decent and indecent.

But Colby is about the search for truth. Our job is to navigate a path to finding and understanding and knowing more than we do. So we have to make space for all ideas. Because somewhere buried in an idea or belief or way of seeing the world with which we disagree may be a doorway to a new way of knowing.

Colby cannot, does not, and will not regulate beliefs.

But Colby can, does, and must regulate behavior.

There is and will always be an inherent tension between competing ideas. Between world views and ways of thinking that begin and end in fundamentally different places. And we have to be thoughtful enough and open-minded enough and generous enough to negotiate that tension.

But there is an important difference between beliefs and actions. And at Colby there is a line where the practice of one's belief interferes with the rights of others to fully participate in the educational opportunities that exist here that can never be crossed.

Sometimes the line is stark and clearly defined. Other times it's not.

So we have policies and rules and processes to help us resolve conflicts when they arise. We do our best to apply them fairly and in a manner that reflects Colby's values and standards. And we commit to constantly evaluating and reevaluating our policies and rules and processes so that they continue to reflect our best thinking. And our best ways of knowing.

Pluralism is hard. Despite our best intentions and our best efforts the clash of ideas and beliefs will at times stir conflict.

But here's the thing. Conflict doesn't have to breed malice. We can disagree without being disagreeable. Without being cruel.  Without being unkind. Conflict can lead to understanding.

Really, at Colby conflict is supposed to lead to understanding.

Pluralism is hard. But we're up to the challenge.  

Jim Terhune
Vice President for Student Affairs
Dean of Students