College Should NOT Be Intellectually Safe

Et Tu, Williams?

The academic year is over, but I'm still troubled by what happened at Williams College last spring. (See insidehighered.com "Free Speech Meltdown" 4/23/19). Tensions often rise on campuses as finals approach, but in Williams' case a student group rallied to challenge white professors to "acknowledge their privilege."

There are two aspects of the drama I can't shake. The first is the Kafkaesque absurdity of Williams students criticizing anybody's privilege. There's a well-traveled quip that goes: "Snooty little Williams College. If you can't get in there, try Harvard." Is that harsh? Not really. It's either the first- or second-ranked liberal arts school in the country each year and its acceptance rate is just 15 percent. No matter how students arrive–superior achievement, affirmative action, legacy admission—they are the privileged, be they white, black, yellow, brown, or green with purple polka dots. They are privileged even if they don't come from money and must take on debt to be there.

I don't deny anyone's rocky path to college. In the 1970s I was a member of the working-class poor with dreams of upward mobility. I'll spare you sob stories of a childhood on the economic margin, but I will say that that I was quite aware that being in college made me privileged. There is a world of difference between assuming student loans and borrowing money to pay the rent. Anytime I forgot my privilege, I heard an earful from neighbors, factory workers with whom I worked during the summer, and my father. They often informed me in language that would deeply distress delicate members of today's campuses.

The shifting definition of "distress" is what really bothers me. Williams, Yale, and numerous other colleges across the country have been beset by demands that colleges should be a "safe environment." If we mean "safe" physically, I concur. But if we mean intellectually, culturally, or morally "safe," I vigorously dissent. In 2014, the University of Chicago adopted recommendations outlined in its "Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression." The gist is that the university rejected coddling, political correctness, and forced conformity of any sort. 

To my ears, what the U of C did in 2014 was what was routinely practiced during my undergrad days in the 1970s. I didn't need trigger warnings to alert me which professors were nasty or nice. That I could figure out! What was harder was sorting out which of my values needed clarification, not affirmation. Like many 18-year-olds, I entered college with a messy pastiche of developing notions, internalized but unexamined ideas, and half-baked views I latched onto. I supported the civil rights movement, but "superficial" would be the proper adjective to describe my level of understanding. In retrospect, my sole well-considered progressive position was that I was firmly against the Vietnam War. On the flip side, I entered college assuming patriarchy was normal, that homosexuality was sinful, that "foreigners" were inferior to Americans, and that all non-Protestants were bound for hell (though I didn't know any Jews, Catholics, Muslims, or persons of other creeds).

College shattered my preconceptions, but through discourse not indoctrination. If I could resurrect a single word from my college days, it would be "analysis," as both conservative and New Left scholars dubbed it. I was jolted by "See Me" note scrawled across my first history paper. My professor dubbed my paper "merely adequate," though he detected "promise" in several passages. He advised in no uncertain terms that he expected me to write and analyze in ways consonant with college-level thinking, or pack up and go home. This expectation persisted across campus among both professors and serious students. Expressed opinion was routinely met with the challenge, "What's your analysis?" By the time I graduated, all that was left of the person who entered was that I still thought the civil rights movement was correct and the Vietnam War was wrong–and I had an analysis for each. 

In other words, college made me feel "unsafe." What could be more unsettling than having to dismantle and rebuild one's values system? Later I found there was a term for the pedagogy my profs were using: Socratic irony–asking questions and feigning ignorance as a way of making others expose the illogic of their own points of view.  Those in or recently retired from academia can attest that these days a professor who forcefully challenges students risks being called out for making them feel unsafe.

Think I'm exaggerating? I got into a mild kerfuffle just for having students see the "N-word" in print. Call me crazy, but I'm not sure how one can teach a course on the American Civil War without exposing students to racist writings from slavery apologists. In a different class, two students (out of 30) complained about a single offhand remark I made. During a discussion I made an unintentional rhyme and joked that maybe I was ready for a career in hip-hop. My quip was obviously self-deprecating humor, yet two white students–there were no African Americans in the class–complained it was racist. (For the record, 80 percent of white music consumers listen to hip-hop and the genre has many white artists.)

Too many colleges and universities have abandoned dialectics in favor of consumer-based and therapeutic models of higher education. Many have become echo chambers for whatever the cause du jour might be; others are soccer balls kicked by both liberal and hard-shell right agenda-wielders. As for dialogue, I was horrified to see Williams students carrying signs emblazoned with the claim, "Free Speech Harms." Good grief!

Contrast that nonsense with what happened when Camille Paglia spoke at Smith in 1992. Her lecture shtick was a mix of scholarship and provocation. Smith didn't welcome her with open arms, but it did pack the auditorium to hear what she had to say. Paglia punctuated her talk with lots of words you can't say any more and many students were outraged by her act. But hats off to Paglia for making them work on their analyses. You can imagine the post-lecture discussion in my class. Or maybe you can't; she'd have trouble getting a lectern these days.

Wither the spirit of open inquiry? Noam Chomsky observed, “Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.” He's right; free inquiry often deeply unsettles. As the University of Chicago put it, "… concerns about civility and mutual respect [should] never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable these ideas may be to some members of our community." Enough with safe echo chamber colleges. Without opposing viewpoints there is no credible analysis.

Rob Weir



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