Majority Opinions

in Editorials | January 12, 2024

          Coming to Lawrenceville means leaving existing support systems for a School that promises to replace that familiarity with something better: a diverse community of equally passionate peers. In loco parentis, the School watches as students tilt their wooden chairs back and forth, leaning in as they develop a budding confidence at the Harkness table. Parents entrust to the School the last stretch of their children’s childhoods, and in return, the School promises its students lives of integrity and high purpose, equipping them to tackle the world’s problems. Lawrenceville advertises its skill at turning adolescents into graduates, students into alumni, but the ability to engage in difficult conversations with an open mind still needs to be intentionally cultivated. 

          Perhaps the most mistakenly coveted skill for students in this redbrick bubble is the ability to tidy up messy conversations in 50-minute periods. In most classes, this activity is done for a grade. Through public speaking competitions and graded Harkness discussions, we celebrate students who can prepare remarks and then deliver them confidently, to develop an opinion and repeat it with gusto. Eloquence and careful listening (or at least the appearance of such) are important, but those who cannot make lace or golden fire out of sentences are often brushed over. Maybe students get this obsession for spectacle from politics where assertiveness dominates, or from our digital lives, where bright, bold color captures the eye. At Lawrenceville, we too often venerate easily digestible thoughts and opinions, and for good reason–supporting a popular stance that demands less effort. 

          Despite our over-acceptance and subsequent encouragement of agreeable stances, Lawrenceville does offer spaces to engage in discussion for the sake of progress and productive reckoning: the student-run Let’s Talk About and Lunch and Dialogue exploration series, events held by the Religious Life Council and affinity groups, Open StuCo meetings, and FOCUS groups all provide a space for students to voice their thoughts. However, these spaces for messy and honest discussions are often attended by a self-selected group of students: like the rest of Lawrenceville’s club culture, scheduled meetings attract those who already hold strong opinions because of their lived experience with the topics. Despite student leaders’ best intentions, majority perspectives often become unanimous in club-led Explorations and discussions because of the difficulties in holding a minority opinion against vocal peers–an echo chamber makes for unproductive conversation. Even when a different perspective, perhaps essential to fully understanding a topic, is heard, the din of assent and reinforcement in such a space can drown out the alternate viewpoint since strong, specialized language overpowers an attempt at discourse. 

          On the occasions when minority voices do become part of the conversation, exchanges at Lawrenceville get measured in terms of the speakers’ facility with language, a yardstick of judgment that isn’t conducive to true diversity of thought. Our responsibility as listeners is to be aware of our bias toward appealing arguments, and make possible an entrance into a conversation. If we only lend credence to the loudest, most experienced, and eloquent voices, then those with valuable opinions who lack the confidence to contribute will always feel like passive observers to discourse—because ultimately, in an environment where only the most brazen voices are heard, peripheral and unnoticed is what those students’ contributions are. 

          If club culture, with its emphasis on uniformity of thought, doesn’t cultivate balanced discussions, perhaps Lawrentians should embrace the spontaneous conversations that arise in their day-to-day lives: the duty desk, the lunch table, and the common room all offer as many opportunities for productive exchanges as the Harkness table, with the added benefit of authenticity instead of performative speech intended to merit rewards, whether for a grade or to impress a group. While Lawrenceville encourages a diversity of thought, not all thought needs to emerge from the classrooms of Lawrenceville; perhaps tapping into our innate curiosity and thirst for discussion is the way to create room for genuinely insightful discourse.