Illustration by Christine Hipp.

All members of the UC Santa Cruz community are, on some level, aware of the way we are stereotyped by the outside world — as a sheltered gang of dirty, pot-smoking hippies with lofty ideals but not much practical sense. Although we know better than to treat that image as fact, there is perhaps room for a greater diversity of ideas on campus, if only to strengthen our own views.

As reported in the Oct. 6 issue of City on a Hill Press, an anti-abortion group called Sanctity of Human Life (SOHL) spent two days in Quarry Plaza last week, handing out pamphlets and DVDs and showing banners with graphic images of aborted fetuses. The handful of pro-life advocates were met with a steady group of UCSC students and faculty members, and many vocally sparred with SOHL about such issues as when human life begins, whether a woman’s personal choice is more important than the life of an unborn fetus, whether it is acceptable to impose one’s religious beliefs on others, whether special exceptions should be made for victims of rape, and other facets of the abortion debate that have always rankled this country.

What was most interesting about this occurrence was not the content of the debate, but its unusual nature at UCSC. According to a 2002 study from the Higher Education Research Institute, 59 percent of first-year students identified as liberal, 34 percent as “middle of the road,” and only 8 percent as conservative. We are a campus that takes pride in its progressive views and student activism, but this ideal of who we are can sometimes suffocate any chance of healthy public debate.

Yes, students in Santa Cruz can certainly disagree about things — the most striking split in recent memory was between those who supported student protests and those who thought they were a waste of time that could have been spent going to class — but there is rarely a forum for such disagreements to be hashed out. Many students are eager to fight for what they believe in, yet don’t ever get the chance to directly face their opposition. And although it might be easier not to ever have to defend one’s positions, in truth it is one of the only ways to strengthen them.

Universities have historically been arenas of open conversations, places where any view can potentially hold validity so long as its holders are willing to participate in a reasonable dialogue. This academic legacy is crucial to a well-rounded education, one in which students are not merely taught ideas, but fully engage with them.

Ensuring that this happens is imperative in the face of growing class sizes and a shrinking number of TAs, because these changes limit the amount of discussion that can happen in class, and even when the opportunity does arise, students with views contrary to the popular opinion are often discouraged from speaking up.

This is why we support the presence of any group who wants make their voice heard in Quarry Plaza, regardless of their message. Yes, the graphic images left some understandably upset, but SOHL at least provided an opportunity to interact with viewpoints not often present at UCSC. It wasn’t just about abortion, it was also about putting education into practice.