I am a liberal (shocking, I know). I am also a college professor. This combination causes distress for some people who argue that our universities are “liberal indoctrination centers” where the professors mock conservatives and teach students to be politically correct and overly sensitive victims of identity politics. So why is it that I keep coming across articles like today’s Daily Read, in which a self-identified liberal professor addresses his concerns about how liberal his students have become? Edward Schlosser discusses the new landscape of college teaching, in which professors have become fearful of engaging students on difficult topics such as racism, gender discrimination, sexuality, and violence. Schlosser is afraid that students have become so sensitive to the travails of their particular identities (race, gender, sexual, et al) that they will raise a hue and cry of discrimination if varying ideas about these identities are even discussed. Students have come to believe that they should always feel “safe,” and therefore should not ever be subjected to difficult content in a classroom, even if the content is discussed with respect and sensitivity.
Many of Schlosser’s points resonated with me, even though I have not had any backlash in my nine years of teaching about sometimes extremely uncomfortable topics such as female genital mutilation, infanticide, violence against women, and racial violence (not to mention teaching evolution to students who frequently come from religious backgrounds). But I have become aware of the trend towards protecting students’ emotional equilibrium by including trigger warnings before difficult material or even professors avoiding topics entirely because of the fear that some students will protest.
I agree with Schlosser that there may be a threat to free and open exchange of ideas on campus if we cater too much to the idea that students should never feel uncomfortable; however, I also believe that there may be an echo-chamber at work here as articles like this reinforce each other and make it seem as if this is a bigger problem than it actually is. It also relates to the topic of what debates should take place on campuses – e.g., there has been an uptick in students protesting the inclusion of controversial speakers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali in campus events (or in the case of a debate between skeptic Michael Shermer* and Christian Frank Turek, a letter to the school paper from the Graduate Queer Alliance at Stony Brook University asking for the university to apologize for allowing Turek, who is opposed to gay marriage, to appear. Shermer and Turek co-authored a response that is worth reading. Also, let me make clear that I disagree with much of what Hirsi Ali has to say, but I think it’s still important to allow her a venue in which to say it).
This is supposed to be a short post so I’m going to leave the topic for now, but there is much more to tackle regarding how to deal with sensitive topics on campus and the liberal response to ideas we find distasteful at best, and openly bigoted at worst. I support having an open, inclusive, and safe (in the traditional sense of the word) environment on campus; but I also believe we can’t truly teach our students how – and not what – to think if we don’t expose them to topics, concepts, and speakers that may sometimes make them feel both emotionally and intellectually uncomfortable.
*Full disclosure: I am a member of the Skeptic Society, of which Shermer is president.