Safety On Our Campuses

columbia universityI keep circling around an incredible column by Peggy Noonan a few weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal. (See Noonan’s Article). The issues are troubling; the column is blistering.

Here is how she begins:

I was taken aback by a piece . . . in the Spectator, the student newspaper of Columbia University. I can’t shake it, though believe me I’ve tried. I won’t name the four undergraduate authors, because 30 years from now their children will be on Google, and because everyone in their 20s has the right to be an idiot.

Yet theirs is a significant and growing form of idiocy that deserves greater response.

I am never comfortable throwing a wet blanket of accusation over students. Usually I bristle at this kind of talk. What Noonan finds so troubling, though, comes from a group of students, possibly a whole culture of students across our nation, obsessed with avoiding unpleasant feelings. If this is a trend, we must take note.

She continues:

Readers know of the phenomenon at college campuses regarding charges of “microaggressions” and “triggers.” It’s been going on for a while and is part of a growing censorship movement in which professors, administrators and others are accused of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, gender bias and ethnocentric thinking, among other things. Connected is the rejection or harassment of commencement and other campus speakers who are not politically correct. I hate that phrase, but it just won’t stop being current.

Noonan goes on to lament the obsession with safety. Students apparently feel the moral right to be protected from any form of hard feelings, whether that comes from a professor teaching, comments by classmates, or from a great work of literature. “Safe is the key word here,” she says.

And then she offers some blunt advice to the student writers of this op-ed:

Why are you so fixated on the idea of personal safety, by which you apparently mean not having uncomfortable or unhappy thoughts and feelings? Is there any chance this preoccupation is unworthy of you? Please say yes.

There is no such thing as safety. That is asking too much of life. You can’t expect those around you to constantly accommodate your need for safety. That is asking too much of people. . . .

Masterpieces, by their nature, pierce. They jar and unsettle. If something in a literary masterpiece upsets you, should the masterpiece really be banished? What will you be left with when all of them are gone?

Are we reaping the results of over-parenting? Help them become safe, to be sure, but never create the illusion that we can wholly avoid either physical harm or emotional hurt. A shift from obsession about safety to the handling of hurt would be a good one.

But the soul-searching here is focused mostly on the university. When our universities seek to protect our students from tough thinking, open debate and disagreement, emotional discomfort that comes with growing up, hard realities exposed through great literature or honest scholarship—well, we have changed the university from what it was supposed to be from its beginnings. Part of the purpose of the university is to face the hard things—albeit within the context of grace-filled discourse. The hurt feelings we can deal with along the way, but those feelings should not change the purpose of learning.

We might also add, if the university is captured by ideology of any sort, as it is often accused, then we have gone too far protecting our students from perspectives outside current dogma. Universities, above all, should never promote the balkanization of opinion that currently splits our society. Students should be the beneficiaries of an open pursuit of what is true and good and beautiful, not to be distorted by ideological overlay.

Finally, students need to know their opinions are not the only ones that matter. When we give them free reign to decide everything from curriculum to commencement speakers—well, we introduce them to a world that doesn’t exist. They will not always get their way. We should suggest they may need more seasoning before they can make the big decisions for an institution.

I want to be clear here. I have been a champion of students all of my life. The students I know are not swept up in this preoccupation with safety. Many of them are courageous. Most of them open themselves to vigorous differences, often amidst the pain of growing up. Many of them are getting an education against enormous odds. They are tough; they know how to take a hit.

So it is not the students I am worried about so much. It is the environments we have created for them, both at home and at school. Nobody gets the chance to step away from hurt, strong differences of opinion, or tough realities. Education is always about wading right into the middle of the worst of it and coming out the other side stronger and wiser and even more gentle and kind. The educators I know are bucking the trend. They know how to lead their students in just this way.