If you’re a conservative leader forget thinking you can impart your wisdom from years of experience in office during commencement season to the fresh minds when they leave college. Liberal student groups are deft at organizing against conservative speakers and publicly shaming universities into rescinding their offers. Higher education is –after all – a place for diversity of thought, except the thoughts they disagree with.
Surprisingly, President Obama was critical of this narrow-minded view in a speech this week. Calling out liberal students specifically, he said this bunch should not be “coddled” and protected from a different point of view. In essence, sensitivity is not an excuse to silence dissenting opinions.
We wish President Obama were receptive to diverse ideas, but this is still a good thing to say to college students. Perhaps, he’s laying the groundwork for his post-office speaking tours and trying to ensure that conservative schools, if there are any, welcome him too.
Whatever his motive, his message is right.
The Hill reports:
“It’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem. Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side. And that’s a problem, too," Obama said during a town hall on Monday in Des Moines, Iowa.
"I've heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative. Or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans, or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women," Obama continued.
"I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of views," he said.
Comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have also blasted oversensitivity of college students.
"Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say. That’s not the way we learn, either," Obama said Monday in Iowa.
"The way to do that is to create a space where a lot of ideas are presented and collide, and people are having arguments, and people are testing each other’s theories, and over time, people learn from each other," Obama said.
In a terrific piece for the Atlantic recently, the head of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and an academic social psychologist at New York University explain how we got to the point where students need to be coddled, the harm it does for them, and a way forward to combat over-sensitivity:
Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.
Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter, colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control…
The biggest single step in the right direction does not involve faculty or university administrators, but rather the federal government, which should release universities from their fear of unreasonable investigation and sanctions by the Department of Education. Congress should define peer-on-peer harassment according to the Supreme Court’s definition in the 1999 case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. The Davis standard holds that a single comment or thoughtless remark by a student does not equal harassment; harassment requires a pattern of objectively offensive behavior by one student that interferes with another student’s access to education. Establishing the Davis standard would help eliminate universities’ impulse to police their students’ speech so carefully.
Universities themselves should try to raise consciousness about the need to balance freedom of speech with the need to make all students feel welcome. Talking openly about such conflicting but important values is just the sort of challenging exercise that any diverse but tolerant community must learn to do. Restrictive speech codes should be abandoned.
Universities should also officially and strongly discourage trigger warnings. They should endorse the American Association of University Professors’ report on these warnings, which notes, “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” Professors should be free to use trigger warnings if they choose to do so, but by explicitly discouraging the practice, universities would help fortify the faculty against student requests for such warnings.
Finally, universities should rethink the skills and values they most want to impart to their incoming students. At present, many freshman-orientation programs try to raise student sensitivity to a nearly impossible level. Teaching students to avoid giving unintentional offense is a worthy goal, especially when the students come from many different cultural backgrounds. But students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses.
Good advice for a generation that has developed too thin a skin to compete in a world where their sensitivities won’t be coddled and their antics won’t earn them admiration but a pink slip.
At my graduate school commencement a few years back, Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s invitation drew a firestorm of criticism from students and protest from a host of liberal professors who disagreed with the War on Terror. The school administration at this Jesuit institution stood firm, I am thankful to say, and I was able to sit a few hundred feet away from the first black, female Secretary of State and listen to her unique experiences of leadership.
While many didn’t agree with her perspective, as my graduate program colleagues recognized, it was still an honor to have a historic world leader bless the conclusion of our education. That is true learning.