If the return of Clinton scandal hysteria to the national stage was not enough nineties nostalgia for you, I have good news for you and horrible news for everyone else: The campus wars are back! Fueled by internet culture, midterm primary politics and the “let me Google that for you” moment to end all such moments, we are in the midst of yet another debate about what the purpose of higher education is, and how best to achieve it.
Modest proposals tend to get shouted down in this sort of debate, but I am going to make one anyway: A college education should be challenging, but provocation need not be the highest ideal in every facet of campus life.
This first solar flare in this renewed conversation was the news that Oberlin College was recommending that professors add trigger warnings to help students decide if they should continue reading content that some with certain life experiences or sensitivities may find disturbing. That recommendation has since been withdrawn and is under reconsideration at Oberlin, but requests for similar considerations have popped up elsewhere, from Rutgers to the University of California, Santa Barbara.
I am all for greater consideration of how to improve mental health support systems on campuses, how to improve experiences for students from a range of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds and to make colleges and universities more rigorous in their response to reports of sexual assault. Giving students more resources and support to cope with the circumstances that have left them vulnerable,and that might make particular subjects exceptionally difficult to discuss seems like a better service to students than making it easier for them to simply opt out of classroom experiences that might bring exceptional rewards along with their emotional costs.
As Jill Filipovic put it in March, “the space between comfort and freedom is not actually where universities should seek to situate college students. Students should be pushed to defend their ideas and to see the world from a variety of perspectives.”
Now, we are getting a reminder of what happens when folks on the right, as well as on the left, invoke sensitivity as a higher priority than academic value. As my colleague Rosalind S. Helderman reported yesterday, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to withdraw $52,000 from the College of Charleston to punish the school for assigning Alison Bechdel’s memoir “Fun Home,” about her closeted father’s suicide, to the incoming freshman class.
“For too long, conservatives have just said, ‘O.K., these institutions are liberal.’ Why would you cede that?” state Sen. Lee Bright (R-Spartanburg) told Helderman.
In this case, what Bright is protecting are his own sensibilities (and his electoral prospects), rather than any large constituency of College of Charleston students claiming to be triggered by Bechdel’s discussions of gay identity and depiction of sex between women.
Helderman noted that students turned out en masse for a production of the musical adaptation of “Fun Home.” They have walked out of classes to protest the selection of a new and more conservative president. And the student council voted overwhelmingly to support the program that assigned Bechdel’s memoir.
Ashley Sprouse, a student at the College of Charleston, put it well in an open letter to Rep. Garry Smith (R-Greenville), where she noted that the attack on “Fun Home” was an attempt to limit debate, not prompt it.
“Who’s pushing the social agenda, Mr. Smith? I doubt it’s the universities that gave students reading material with which they can choose to agree or disagree,” she wrote in a letter that advocates on both sides of these debates might do well to read. “A vital aspect of attending college is questioning personal beliefs. College is a time to grow. College is a time to read books you agree with. College is a time to read books you disagree with. College is a time to learn who you are.”
Amen. But there are a lot of different lessons to draw from college, including the ones that may be appropriate and effective in a pedagogical setting, but may land poorly outside of it.
One example where colleges often err in this regard is in how they approach graduation. Commencement ceremonies, which are just around the corner, ought to focus on the accomplishments of the graduating students (and perhaps on assuaging their parents about the expense they have just incurred).
But instead, they have become a sort of prestige arms race, in which schools compete to see who can attract the flashiest speaker, no matter their appropriateness for the occasion. This is how we get vainglorious campaign speeches disguised as congratulatory addresses, Anderson Cooper joking that he might have fathered any of the graduates in my class, and it must be how Brandeis University decided that Ayaan Hirsi Ali would make a good honorary degree recipient, apparently without researching her.
It is entirely possible to believe that Ali deserves opportunities to speak and debate her views, and to wonder about her as a fit for this particular occasion. Brandeis is committed to religious co-education. It speaks to a sense of poor event planning that the school would ask Muslim students and their parents to celebrate graduation with an honoree who believes their faith is “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”
Provocation does not always speak to openness. Sometimes, it just indicates sloppiness. And sensitivity can be about making it possible to participate. But it can also be a form of condescension, or in South Carolina, a means of shutting down debate. Colleges can best serve their students by training them not just in the ideas that inform wide-ranging debates, but by giving them a sense of occasion and how best to advance their arguments.
[Update: A Brandeis representative writes to note that the initial invitation to Ali was just to receive an honorary degree. This post has been updated to reflect that.]