The Ideal Student

Let me tell you about the college student that I hope all my high school students become.  

In fact, let me tell you about the college student I wish I’d been.  

He only graduated two years ago but he is already a published author.  His name is Zachary Wood and his new book is called Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America.  I think you should read it.

Wood rose to national prominence while an undergrad as the president of an organization at Williams College called “Uncomfortable Learning,” dedicated to bringing controversial speakers to campus.  Today, two years after graduating, he’s a hero in free speech circles. He writes and speaks to a variety of influential audiences. In the book he writes openly about his desire to run for President someday; a lot of important people who’ve met him don’t laugh at his chances.  After reading this book, I wouldn’t either.

As someone who believes in the First Amendment, it’s challenging to see how in the past five years, in the name of progressive reform, many liberals, perceiving the First Amendment as a protection of systemic discrimination, have turned against free speech.  Long ago, the reverse was true; important gains for liberals during the Civil Rights Era were secured largely through courts’ robust interpretation of the First Amendment to protect liberal activists. Even more challenging has been to see not just conservatives but right wing provocateurs grab the mantle of free expression, using their platforms to do little more than poke at liberals, then position themselves as martyrs when they’re shouted down.

It’s hard not to blame liberals though.  The First Amendment is being used by the Supreme Court to justify increasingly sketchy interpretations of free speech.  Examples include the protection of large companies’ campaign donations as “free speech,” the break-up of unions due to the apparent free speech rights of individual members, and the protection of small business owners’ rights not to service gay customers on the grounds that the very products they sell are somehow speech not to be coerced.  It’s hard not to think that we’ve gotten a little far from the point. When justice Elena Kagan complained that conservatives are “weaponizing the First Amendment,” she had a point. Under the Roberts court free speech is starting to seem less a defense of the powerless than a defense of the powerful.

What good is it then, really?

Enter Zachary Wood.  

***

Zachary Wood stands out.  When I first read about him, I was not surprised that Wood, a preternaturally gifted spokesperson for viewpoint diversity and a bringer of controversial speakers to his liberal campus, was once vilified by peers as a “white supremacist.” I was surprised to learn that Wood is not even white.  In fact, this vocal critic of ideological homogeneity is not only not a stereotypical white boy college Republican in preppy clothes, or a vaguely white nationalist, anti-this and that-style troll.  Zachary Wood is a liberal, progressive, African American man. Unlike most of his college peers, he is not rich. In fact, he comes from an impoverished background rife with abuse.  It is this background which both directs him toward a political mission of social progressivism but also implores him to pursue very different means of achieving his goals than those of most of his peers: what he terms “uncomfortable learning.” His story is one that means something in today’s divided America.

Let’s start with his background, which is absolutely unlike anything I’ve ever heard about.  Wood’s mother, who raises him, suffers from serious mental health issues which cause her to abuse her son in a vividly-depicted series of escalating confrontations, but at the same time to instill in him a remarkable self-reliance, poise, and conviction.  It’s as if she is teaching him to withstand her in order to withstand greater foes. For example, at one point Wood’s mother, finally under the guidance of mental health professionals, has apparently completed a remarkable turnaround. A naturally articulate and gregarious person, she and Wood are invited to speak, a mother-son team, at mental health conferences as a kind of testament to the power of modern psychological treatment.  Trouble is, she is by no means fully healed, only skilled at hiding it. She continues abusing her son (recounted in some truly dark vignettes) — all the while schooling him in the arts of public speaking in preparation for their conference talks (which are a hit). Even as she privately taunts him with some of the most uncomfortable (and sometimes weirdly sexual) invective I’ve ever read, she demands that he stand tall, make eye contact with her, and never retreat an inch.  It’s truly bizarre: in the process of making life a hell for her son, Wood’s mother is instilling deep pools of courage and resilience.

And it is this courage that allows him, years later, to make his mark.

Here’s what I admire so much about Wood.  He does not court controversy to relish the attention, raise his profile, rankle fellow students needlessly, or even because he agrees with the conservative thinkers he invites to campus.  Instead, over and over again in the book he explains his bedrock belief in the importance of exposure to divergent viewpoints in order to strengthen his own arguments and understanding of the world.  It’s diversity he wants — viewpoint diversity.

If you’re reading this book even half-awake, you quickly realize that Wood’s desire to hear all voices is really just part and parcel with his almost overwhelming hunger to learn.  By high school, Wood, having escaped his mother’s abuse, moves to Washington, D.C. to live with his father, who is caught in a cycle of debt and poverty, despite working three jobs.  Each day, Wood commutes an hour each way by train from his Anacostia neighborhood past gang members and drug addicts who taunt and sometimes beat him, across the city to the uber-rich suburb of Potomac where he attends a fancy private school.  If anything, Wood might work even harder than his father. Although he is popular and well-liked on campus, he is so zealously wrapped up in his learning that at one point he passes out on his makeshift desk, reading all twenty-two of Cornell West’s books in order to say something perceptive during the Q & A at West’s upcoming speaking engagement.  When Wood’s father visits him in the hospital, the first thing Wood asks for is his books. His father, a constant but laconic presence, wisely tells him no — he must restore some semblance of balance in his life.

But this is not just a Horatio Alger story where a young man from a poor family does double time in the library to keep his grades high, before riding a college scholarship straight into law or business school, eventually escaping the cycle of poverty and making partner.  Wood has more than financial gain in mind for his studies. This is why I think Wood is such a role model: It’s not grades he’s interested in, it’s learning.

Wood actively wants to make the world a better place.  Remember, he’s interested in politics. His values are recognizable as social-progressive (which is why it is ironic that he has been hailed by conservatives for his free speech advocacy).  He pauses a number of times for perceptive, politically-tinged asides about his mother’s mental health treatment, his father’s poverty (“it’s expensive to be poor”) and the social conditions that contributed to his dangerous neighborhood.  It’s not hard to see his budding political ambitions.

But perhaps because he has always been an outsider — poor and black in a rich, white private school — he has grown accustomed to trying to understand the way others think, and it dawns on him that if he wants to improve the world we live in, first he must learn everything he possibly can about why the world is the way it is.  This is not just rhetorical. He is not just trying to win the argument. He’s interested in understanding context.  I didn’t learn this until much later in life: the importance of asking not “Why can’t we?” but first “We do we?” Not “Why can’t we end discrimination?” but “Where does discrimination come from?” It’s a similar desire to know that leads him to a voracious reading of history and philosophy, and to an insatiable curiosity to listen to his ideological opponents.

During high school, Wood presses his wealthy white peers (and sometimes their parents) as far as he thinks he can, trying to learn why they think the way they do.  But it’s not until he attends a summer program at Stanford University, where he engages in a series of classic late-night common room debates with a genial conservative friend that he learns the thrill of intellectual debate.

Then he gets to Williams College.  

Suffice to say, his small, elite New England campus — which he chose for the rigorous tutorial program (of which he makes characteristically voracious use) — does not offer this same kind of robust debate.  Wood finds himself in an ideological bubble where most students and even professors subscribe to the same set of progressive-left values.  It is for this reason that Wood takes up with a student group called Uncomfortable Conversations, and immediately begins pushing the campus to engage in the kinds of debates that he believes are urgent.

When Wood invites a series of increasingly controversial speakers to campus, the backlash is fierce.  Wood tells a number of anecdotes about how vilified he becomes. The most disturbing is a death threat he receives, a drawing of a tree with a message strongly implying he should be lynched.  That Wood is African American and poor makes it especially striking when many of his peers at Williams, most of whom are white and rich, criticize him, with one of them labeling him a “white supremacist.” What’s awkward is that most of his peers and professors — even the ones who are African American — are card-carrying progressives, whose discomfort with the dissenting views that Wood seeks to bring to campus is partly based on the desire to protect minorities like Wood himself from discrimination and harm.  Consider the irony of a historically white campus like Williams trying to create a welcoming environment for persons of color by opposing the efforts of and even personally vilifying Zachary Wood — just the sort of poor, minority student they’re claiming to protect.

It’s not surprising then that conservative media adopted Wood for their own cause, but for all his classmates’ protestations, Wood time and time again reiterates that while he shares their progressive ideals, he just wants to better equip himself against his opponents:

“I wanted to push myself even more to immerse myself in the complexities of what my opponents thought and felt so that I could use them in service of my own goals . . . If I knew my opponent well enough to confidently conjecture his moves and lines of reasoning, I could act astutely and respond effectively.”

And this is what I think is so promising about Wood’s approach.  We can only convince people if we understand where they’re coming from.  The more we remain in ideological echo-chambers, the more we caricature the other side’s beliefs and motivations.  In a way, we not only allow them to dehumanize us, but we dehumanize them.

Perceptive readers soon realize that in the end it is not the conservative speakers who Wood invites to campus that are his true adversaries — it’s his intolerant peers.  They are his best training. It is their arguments he finds himself most seeking to understand, their hearts and minds he tries hardest to win over. He came to Williams College looking for debate and he found it — except it was among his own kind.

I know I never would have had the courage to be a Zachary Wood, especially while I was in college.  It’s hard to imagine withstanding the censure of one’s peers the way he did, especially on a small rural campus, particularly with your name in the national headlines.  Even more importantly, I can’t imagine ever having had the wisdom and perspective of a Zachary Wood when I was 28, let alone 18. Imagine being mature enough to resolve to set an entire campus on its head because of a far-sighted principle.  To be fair, there are moments in this book that remind you how young and idealistic Wood is, and how fresh and unprocessed many of these experiences are, how unmitigated by reflection and time. But generally I found myself coming up short time and again at Wood’s old-soul perspective on the importance of both viewpoint diversity, intellectual curiosity, and of simple, old-fashioned reading and studying as a compelling counterpoint to the ideological division, the rush to judgment, and the tribalism that dominates our politics today.

These are the qualities I admire in Zachary Wood.  These are also the qualities I aspire for my own students to have.  They are finally the qualities I aspire to have myself. Read this book and take note of Zachary Wood.  Something tells me we’ll be hearing a lot more about him.

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