Colleges are where you go to learn about the world and expand your experiences beyond those of your home town and its parochial groupthink. On a modern college campus, you will encounter people with different views, experiences, and values, and that’s part of what makes college a stepping-stone from childhood into the bigger world of adulthood.
Unfortunately, in the last decade or two that’s not what’s been happening. Instead, colleges are becoming bastions of what some people refer to disparagingly as Social Justice Warriors and others liken to the thought police. It has gotten to the point that someone wearing a pro-Trump hat can be accused of a hate crime, and where students, in tears, admit that they feel physically threatened by even imagining that Republicans roam free on campus.
Are young adults today really that sensitive? For the most part, yes. Consider just a few recent PC scandals: Duke University Professor Jerry Hough was put on administrative leave after what were labeled racially insensitive comments posted about a New York Times editorial. Rowan College professor Nancy Reeves was busted for posting racially insensitive cartoons on her personal Facebook account. UCLA Professor Val Rust was accused of racism for simply correcting the spelling and grammar of his minority students. Merchant Marine Academy Professor Greg Sullivan will likely be fired for a dumb joke about the Aurora Theater Shooting in Colorado. Yale professor Nicholas Christakis was assaulted by students for supporting his wife’s essay about culturally-appropriative Halloween costumes.
It’s no wonder people are beginning to say that college professors are afraid to teach millennials; as one essay noted, “Teachers ensure that no cognitive dissonance enter the lives of those going into deep debt to experience what can only be considered an intellectual day-care, run by the toddlers.” Critic Judith Shulevitz explains that in addition to de rigueur trigger warnings, some students are also seeking “safe spaces” that are ultimately “an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.”
NYU professor Jonathan Haidt has a theory about the modern college student who can’t handle dissension and opposing views: “Their vulnerability defines them and gives them a moral platform from which to demand protection and safety. At the same time, they typecast their opponents as bullies, traumatizers and aggressors.”
As these descriptions suggest, college has stopped being a place where students gather to be challenged by different viewpoints and perspectives and to have a healthy debate with people who have different values and beliefs. Far worse, it’s clear that professors and other college staff are increasingly risking their careers when they criticize the often uber-liberal prevailing culture of college campuses, even in predominantly Republican cities and states.
Jonathan Cole, writing for The Atlantic, points the blame at college presidents and other leaders, saying that “the vast majority of presidents and provosts of the finest U.S. universities have not seized this moment of concern voiced by students as a teaching moment—a moment to instruct and discuss with students what college is about.”
Think about this: Back in 1947 the University of Chicago said that by “design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.” In fact, The University of Chicago is one of the few academic institutions fighting the PC tide, and, predictably, garnering criticism for doing so.
But all is not lost. Sometimes universities try to turn the tide, including the University of Chicago which sent a letter to all incoming freshman stating “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
New York University is doing its bit too, announcing that it would not fire beleaguered professor Michael Rectenwald for his criticism of PC culture on campus; instead, they gave him a promotion and a raise. NYU liberal studies dean Fred Schwarzbach reminded other faculty that one of their “program’s core values is the importance of the free and open exchange of different views, even those with which most of us disagree.”
Campus hand-wringing, tears and safe-space gatherings aside, the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States might be just what’s needed to ease the stranglehold of political correctness on campus. If so, it will prove a welcome silver lining to this contentious election season.