When freshmen first arrived at Canada’s University of Western Ontario a few weeks ago, they were introduced not to cutting-edge research or “the best which has been thought and said” (in Matthew Arnold’s magisterial phrasing), but to a brazen, petty, and all-too-common act of censorship that infantilizes young adults even as it chills free speech and open communication among students and faculty alike.
Welcome to college, kids! Now stop thinking. And for god’s sake, don’t make jokes, talk freely, or even compliment your fellow students.
A student publication at the university, The Gazette, published an irreverent special issue for incoming freshmen. Among the articles was a clearly satirical piece titled, “So you want to date a teaching assistant?” It included such tips as, “Do your research. Facebook stalk and get to know your TA. Drop in on his or her tutorials, and if you’re not in that class — make it happen…. Ask your own smart questions, answer others’ dumb questions, and make yourself known in the class. Better yet, stand out as a pupil of interest.”
If any hard-of-humor students didn’t understand the ironic nature of the advice, there was this: “Know when to give up. At the end of the day, TAs are there to guide you through the curriculum – so there’s a good chance you have to be okay with that and only that. They may not be giving you head, but at least they’re giving you brain.”
The piece immediately set off “a furor,” with the union representing T.A.s calling for the piece to be taken down for promoting sexual harassment and the university provost publicly castigating the paper for being “disrespectful.” The offending material was quickly pulled off from the paper’s website and the editors wrote a groveling, ritualistic apology, promising to report “on these issues in a more serious manner in the future.”
This episode represents what pedagogues like to call a “teachable moment,” but the lesson being learned has nothing to do with the higher-level thinking or analysis you’re supposed to learn at college. It has to do with straitjacketing students (and faculty, too) into a rigid, narrow, and altogether inhuman mode of expression in which the overriding principle is to never give offense, real or imagined.
The Western Ontario case might have happened anywhere. Indeed, to get a sense of how thin-skinned colleges have become, check out the long and always-growing case list of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which pushes for freedom of expression on campuses.
One of FIRE’s recent cases involved a female University of Oregon student who was initially disciplined for yelling the sexual innuendo “I hit it first!” at a couple she didn’t know (the school backed down after FIRE intervened). Not all cases involve sexually suggestive language: FIRE is also suing a number of schools for unconstitutionally restricting specifically political speech. Among the cases: California’s Citrus College threatened to remove a student who was gathering signatures on a petition critical of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Americans.
Why are we treating the next generation of leaders, entrepreneurs, and citizens as hot-house flowers that cannot for one second be discomfited by what they see, hear, or read? Isn’t one of the main reasons to go to college precisely to be pulled out of the world in which you grew up? It is not particularly difficult to espouse free expression for all without endorsing everything that gets said in the marketplace of ideas. It’s exactly in the conversations among those with whom we disagree that old ideas get made better and new ideas flourish. But suppression of speech, whether done by the medieval Church, anti-sex crusaders in the 19th century, or contemporary campus commisars, leads nowhere good.
Yet last year saw the mainstreaming of so-called microagressions, or “quiet, unintended slights” that perpetuate racism, sexism, and classism. According to popularizers of the concept, microaggressions often masquerade as compliments, such as when a man tells a woman she did well in math. Churlish, yes, but actionable speech?
The same sort of hyper-sensitivity is apparent with the rise of “trigger warnings,” in which professors are asked or mandated to give advance notice when engaging course materials that might offend students who have experienced traumas in the past. As a student at Rutgers put it, undergraduates shouldn’t be forced to encounter The Great Gatsby without first being told that the novel “possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.” Suggested language for professors in a trigger-warning guide at Oberlin runs like this: “We are reading this work in spite of the author’s racist frameworks because his work was foundational to establishing the field of anthropology.”
We’re told that college is an absolute necessity in today’s advanced society. Higher education alone can cultivate the critical thinking skills and independence of thought that drives not just economic innovation but social progress too. Yet over the past 30 or so years, college has become an irony-free zone, one in which every utterance is subjected to withering cross-examinations for any possibility of offense across a multitude of race, class, gender and other dimensions.
As the Western Ontario case demonstrates, when offense is taken, open discussion and debate is no longer the preferred method for dealing with disagreements. No, the bad words must be disappeared and the malefactors forced not simply to apologize but to admit their errors in thinking and promise not to do it again. That’s the way a cult operates, not a culture. And it’s certainly no way to help young adults learn how to engage the world that waits them after graduation.