Recently, administrators at American colleges and universities have had to deal with a rather unfortunate and, depending on who you ask, scary trend. I am talking, of course, about the issues of free speech that have dominated campuses this year.
Across the nation, college students have organized protests, staged sit-ins, and used other methods to draw attention to their “cause,” if you can call it that. It seems these students feel unsafe at school and want administrations to do something about it to make their learning environment more inclusive; they want to make sure that nobody is offended by what they hear or see on campus.
Students have requested that “trigger warnings” appear in course lectures before material which might be potentially offensive is discussed; any insignificant — even unintentional — actions or phrases that might trigger some sort of offense to someone is called a “micro-aggression” and will not be tolerated by these student activists.
Instead of challenging themselves and growing intellectually, students who partake in these protests retreat into their “safe spaces” and shout down any arguments that appeal to reason.
The problems with this sort of attitude are numerous: How are professors and administrators supposed to rid their campuses of any material which might offend someone? What makes something offensive or inappropriate for a college campus? Who is to judge this material? What, then, is the purpose of spending four years (not to mention thousands of dollars) at college if someone does not allow their beliefs to be tested?
It is often stated that a lot of what a college student learns is outside the classroom. Time management, basic social and communicative skills, and other “adult” responsibilities like cooking and cleaning all come to mind as some of the things students learn while living away from mom and dad for the first time.
But if these students are being coddled and told their feelings must not be hurt and their fragile sensibilities must never be tested, what are they learning about the world? Surely, upon graduation they will have to learn the hard truth that not only will life beyond campus not cater to their every whim and fancy, but also that sometimes people will say something they disagree with or that bothers them and they won’t be able to tell them to be quiet.
College is a place for learning, opening one’s mind to new ideas, and growing to become a more mature and responsible adult. It is impossible to see how shutting out any opinion that might conflict with one’s own — especially without giving any proponents of the idea a chance to rationalize it — can help students achieve those goals.
Besides, this is an unrealistic expectation for the future; even if students succeed in placing themselves in a “safe space” bubble where nobody disagrees with them, they will soon be confronted with such opposition upon graduation and entering the work force, or really in any real-life situation.
Instances of these students arguing for a “safe space” on campus are enough to drive one crazy.
Consider, for example, Ithaca College, where students called for President Tom Rochon to be fired after he apologized for insensitive remarks made by a speaker, while also acknowledging the impossibility of university administration preventing any and all instances of hurtful speech occurring on campus.
There was also an incident at Yale University where an administrator was berated by students for sending an email saying they should engage in discussion with one another if offended by, of all things, Halloween costumes, rather than attempting to ban costumes.
Students responded by saying the administrator’s role was “not about creating an intellectual space … about creating a home.” The list of colleges and universities mired in this struggle is dizzying and shows a serious issue with the way today’s college students expect to be treated.
This has proven to be such an epidemic that even President Barack Obama has weighed in on the topic. He, thankfully, is on the side of reason.
When asked about the growing number of colleges and universities under attack by their own students, he said, “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view … Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying ‘you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ ”
With the President’s words in mind, it is time for colleges and universities to take back their campuses and learning environments. Rather than letting students dictate curriculum out of fear of being offended, schools should encourage an intellectually challenging environment that prepares them to become competent and functioning members of society upon graduation.
Kevin Olsen of Marlboro is a senior at Providence College, Providence, R.I.