John Rose has lots of visitors to his class. The title alone is timely and intriguing: “How To Think in the Age of Political Polarization.”
And it has touched an intellectual nerve, not only with students but also alumni and parents. One February morning Rose welcomed guests and began to lecture. The topic was comedy, philosophically, in a polarized era.
With Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and others pushing the envelope of social commentary – and entering the “canceled” zone – there were so many places to go. And yet “I felt a little ridiculous,” Rose remembered.
That’s because listening intently from the back of the room was none other than Jerry Seinfeld, esteemed Duke parent and renowned master of the stand-up.
Seinfeld, Rose could see, wanted in on the action and the professor happily acquiesced. “He put me out of my misery, and he came up and he talked. I interviewed him,” Rose said.
And thus ensued another Duke-tastic moment when you never know who is going to show up in the classroom. (Rose hadn’t forewarned the students that the “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” star was coming.)
Seinfeld heard about Rose’s popular class from his daughter, Sascha ’23, who was in the class. Rose met Jessica Seinfeld, Jerry’s wife, at a Duke Parents Committee luncheon where he was seated at her table and was a guest speaker. His comments touched a nerve and found their way back to Jerry, who eagerly wanted to come.
“I’d been talking about comedy in my class. The importance of laughing about something. And disagreeing. And how politically intolerant folks are often humorless,” Rose explains. “My students know that I am religious [he earned his doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary], and I think there is something supernatural about humor.”
Indeed, students were eager to engage Seinfeld and asked him if he was concerned that Chappelle, whose stand-up of late had received pointed criticism from some progressives, would be canceled. Seinfeld said no, Rose recalled. “Jerry said the people would protect him – that there was a sort of democracy around comedy.”
Rose has come to enjoy being the ringmaster of tough discussions. And these are all tackled in his class, which is offered to a wide range of students as Ethics 203/Political Science 208/Public Policy 202. Among the issues taken up in his popular course are transgender athletes, gender pronouns, Israel-Palestine, abortion, critical race theory, racial inequality and the very idea of what race is, police and violence. The stuff that divides us.
He says with confidence: “I like to choose the topics on which students self-censor.”
But he is mindful that the discussion can be sensitive, and he strives to cultivate an atmosphere of charity. That, he says, is key.
“We talk a lot about courage – finding the courage to speak, to dissent – and I’ve observed that courage is contagious. Students will follow upon a brave comment with another brave comment.”
Rose, 41, grew up in Iowa and joined Duke in 2017 to work as associate director of what would become the Civil Discourse Project at the Kenan Institute of Ethics. The father of five children who are homeschooled, he refuses to discuss his own political views in the classroom and says he’s not a partisan. “I’m actually more interested in God than politics,” he says. “In some sense, it is kind of pastoral work.”
He has received multiple teaching commendations but insists that the success of his class is due to his students. He makes himself real and earns their trust. Each semester, he invites them to his home and introduces them to his family.
Rose's Thought-Starters for Class
“Loving Your Enemies” – sermon by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Portrait courtesy Nobel Foundation, Public Domain, Via Wikimedia Commons.
“College Campuses Should Not Be Safe Spaces” – article by Jonathan Zimmerman in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“Two Ideas About Safe Spaces”– comments by Van Jones at a University of Chicago Institute of Politics discussion, available on YouTube. Portrait courtesy of VanJones.net.
In 2021, Rose, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the virtue of open-mindedness, published an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, diving into “How I Liberated My Classroom.” In the piece, Rose noted that he surveyed more than 100 of his students, with eye-opening results. “Sixty-eight percent told me they self-censor around certain political topics. That includes self-described conservative students and also half of the liberals.”
Reading the Journal that day was Washington, D.C., attorney and former Duke trustee Peter Kahn. He said Rose’s words struck a chord. He would later come to find out that other alums felt the same. After a series of discussions among them, Kahn led the creation of a working group in spring 2022 with Rose and other faculty and alumni joining in. Eventually, he attended Rose’s class to see for himself what it was like.
“I was blown away,” said Kahn. “These are great kids. They come from all sorts of backgrounds. And they had this open and respectful discussion.”
Buoyed by the classroom climate, Kahn and his group met with university leadership – President Vincent Price and former Provost Sally Kornbluth, among others – and they found support for a proposed new alumni group. At the reunions this spring, their group, Friends for Free Speech & Intellectual Diversity at Duke, debuted. About 300 people showed up for a panel discussion, and it was clear, said Kahn, that there was a need and interest.
“The climate is ripe for someone like John at Duke, and at other universities as well, to take this on and give it the support it deserves to create a widespread culture of free speech and viewpoint diversity,” says Kahn. “I think what we are seeing is that faculty and students are very much afraid to have these open discussions lest they be censored or shamed.”
Dean Gary Bennett, who leads Trinity College, says this effort is a natural extension of work that has been going on for some time at Duke to promote strong ideas.
“I think there are few things more important at this moment in our history as a country than fighting against the kind of polarization that is so rampant in our communities,” he said.
At Trinity, he adds, “we are supportive of any endeavor among our faculty to promote discourse, meaningful substantive dialogue across all manner of difference … This is what we do, and this is who we are. Duke is a place that has long emphasized this experience.”
Duke, Bennett said, “is more diverse by every definition than it has been in its history. The times demand that we hone our skills at being able to foster this kind of dialogue.”
Adam Snowden, a 2021 Duke graduate and A.B. Duke Scholar, said lessons from Rose’s class have helped him evolve his thinking. They still resonate as he studies medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. One important takeaway and foundation from the class was the notion “that everyone engaging in dialogue had good intent,” Snowden said.
He calls the class “very special” and said Rose taught students that listening with not only an open mind but a heart for goodwill grounded their learning and allowed them to share their thinking authentically. “I had my perspective changed more than once in that class,” said Snowden, a Florida native who is pondering a possible career in medical ethics.
As for Friends for Duke, organizers of the new alumni group (FriendsforDuke.org) hope to create a homecoming weekend program to continue their drumbeat, as well as annual speaker dinners in New York and Washington, D.C.
The group is also encouraging Duke to consider communicating a clear statement from leadership to support and defend faculty and students when their rights are challenged. “They aren’t certain that the university will stand behind them if they take certain unpopular, though respectable, positions. Without that confidence, faculty and students will understandably keep their beliefs to themselves,” Kahn said.
The alumni group is also encouraging all faculty to include on their syllabi a statement saying they support intellectual diversity and freedom of speech in their classrooms. Kahn notes that Duke’s current statement on diversity, equity and inclusion includes “very good language for us. I think it’s important that people understand that DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] includes viewpoint diversity.”
In addition, Kahn says, the Friends group, which is non-partisan, would also like to see a university-wide survey to determine just where things stand on campus around freedom of expression. That, he says, could be used to stimulate further conversation on work that needs to be done to protect speech and ensure students and faculty can feel comfortable expressing and engaging on their deeply held views.
“We believe Duke’s long-standing commitment to free and open inquiry and the robust exchange of ideas positions the university particularly well to be a leader among institutions of higher education,” Kahn said.
“Without this, a university ceases to be a university.”