WGBH Talks to Students about Course Designed to Prepare them for Debating Public Issues

May 12, 2016
Professors Tom Cushman and Jonathan Imber lead a class.

WGBH Radio recently visited campus to feature a popular class at Wellesley that challenges students to consider alternative views, especially ones that might challenge their own preconceived ideas. The sociology course is titled Freedom: Great Debates on Liberty and Morality, co-taught by Thomas Cushman and Jonathan Imber, both professors of sociology

The WGBH segment, part of their "On Campus" series, featured the professors leading spirited debates (what Cushman calls "Socratic pushing"). Cushman told WGBH, "We'd like to have a wider range of ideas across the political spectrum, from libertarian views to conservative views, to even radical anarchist views….'" Imber told WGBH he and Cushman agree on "how important it is to get disagreement out there [on campus and in the classroom]."

Freedom: Great Debates on Liberty and Morality delves into a variety of complicated and difficult topics, including freedom of expression, race and ethnicity, criminality, sexuality, gender, social class, religion, and the war on drugs. One of the course's goals, according to the professors, is to better equip students to face these kinds of conversations after they leave Wellesley. "If those conversations never happen [now], then I’m unprepared for the sorts of situations in the world where I'm going to be exposed to that in an environment that might not be so accepting and might not be so safe," Esther Jaffee '19 told WGBH.

As part of the course, students are required to study political theory. "Over the course of the semester, I've had a lot of exposure to the theory and rationale behind political ideology, [and] being able to analyze contemporary libertarian [and] conservative movements with a historical and literary context has been really interesting," Jaffee reported. The course has helped her understand "a lot of what we see on the news and hear in presidential debates." Jaffe is interested in studying public health.

According to Margaret Flynn Sapia '19, the course teaches students how "to discuss difference in opinions respectfully, without sacrificing the integrity of one’s beliefs." Sapia said one "really amazing" class discussion (which occurred on the day WGBH visited) was about "the degree to which people should be held accountable for their addictions and action taken under their addictions." Sapia is considering a major in Middle Eastern studies or sociology.

Asriel Walker '19, biochemistry major, recalled that on the day the WGBH reporter visited the class, "Professor Cushman had to pause to remind us that we weren't supposed to be arguing over which particular opinion was the right one…[but rather] why people held certain opinions. As a student who had never taken a sociology class, this was the moment I completely understood what sociology was all about."

Cushman is the Deffenbaugh de Hoyos Carlson Professor in the Social Sciences and the director of the Freedom Project at Wellesley College, an initiative that fosters intellectual pluralism, tolerance, and diversity of viewpoints at Wellesley. Imber is the Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology. His expertise is on the religious and historical dimensions of medicine.

- Helena McMonagle ’16 contributed to this story.