Is it too late to save the spirit of debate on university campuses, the very places where dissent is supposed to be valued for its contribution to fresh and vibrant thought?
We’ve been worrying about the problem for decades. In the early 90s, my contribution to free speech in education was shuffling through the halls of my Toronto high school wearing a T-shirt bearing a “NO PC” symbol on it. It took an unfortunate amount of explaining of the U.S.-designed garment that “PC” stood for political correctness, rather than Progressive Conservatives, who were still alive and well at the time.
These side conversations frustrated me because I thought they were distracting from my serious work. As a precocious grade 13 student, I was raising the alarm about an important issue: the decline and fall of institutions of higher learning … which were destined to take place at any moment thanks to the vile spread of censorship.
With the benefit of hindsight, and some of the nuance of thought that comes with no longer being a teenager, it’s clear to me now that valuable higher education was never going to be annihilated in one fell swoop by deference to censorship of unpleasant or upsetting speech. And also that cheap T-shirts are of limited value in creating a social movement.
The thing about creating no-go words, topics, and perspectives in universities is that the real damage isn’t immediate. It’s slow and seeps through the entire educational experience quite silently. For quite a while, it was possible for students like me to avoid the chill — the overt hostility to anything but approved social dogma — simply by making careful choices about schools, areas of study, and classes.
It’s wasn’t until the current decade that it became clear that it isn’t just the UC Berkeleys and gender studies faculties of the world that are capable of enforcing “correct” positions and viewpoints — and expressions thereof — on their staff and students. This kind of orthodoxy on issues of race, gender, class, and you-name-the-sensitive-issue is now as commonplace in dorms as it is in semiotics seminars, as suffocating at Yale as it is at Sarah Lawrence College.
The use of Yale as an example is not entirely random, since that Ivy League institution is in the middle of a mess.
On Thursday, hundreds of students there surrounded the Yale College Dean (who happens to be black); then they verbally pilloried him and the university for not doing more about an alleged incident of a fraternity turning black women away from a party, and about an email sent by an undergraduate college master’s wife, Erika Christakis. In the message, Christakis suggested that culturally insensitive Halloween costumes Yale students might wear were neither her business, nor the end of the world.
Debate is healthy. If what the vocal Yale students were seeking were a public parley of opposing arguments about the party incident (the veracity of which is disputed, and the origins of which may have more to do with sexism than anything else), or the issue of how damaging an offensive Halloween costume is, that would be understandable, and probably beneficial to the school.
But according to newspaper accounts and videos taken of the students, discourse is not what they wanted at all. Rather their goal was to shut down any and all expression of an opinion such as Christakis’s — and to call for her husband, Stillman college master Nicholas Christakis, to be fired because he disagreed too.
The fact that the hours of shouting and cursing Nicholas Christakis endured showed the students exercising far more authoritarianism than he did or his wife did may be the best illustration there is the problem of stifling speech on campus.
It’s beyond question that race and gender remain real, serious issues — and racism and sexism real, serious problems — on North American campuses. It’s been 25 years since Buzz Bissinger’s book Friday Night Lights exposed just how brutally disposable minority (and to some extent female) students could be viewed in a West Texas high-school football town, even in what seemed like the enlightened era of the 1980s. Yet, John Krakauer’s Book Missoula, released earlier this year, does not paint a much prettier picture of a Montana college football town today.
Those problems deserve airing, and the schools that permit or enable them deserve challenge. The key is that the challengers not replace the intractable monolithic discrimination they oppose with intractable monolithic imperatives of their own.
A real education is one that challenges students to find their own individual way to a thoughtful, well-reasoned and authentic take on the things that matter most. That can’t happen if students and professors are confined in their thinking and expression to an established order, regardless of how enlightened or salubrious that established order might be.
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