Heading to college, whether for your first or your final year, is an exciting time. There are friends to meet or reconnect with, classes to enroll in, and a whole campus to explore and rediscover. This year, though, it also feels as if there are sides to take. The University of Chicago, for example, recently welcomed new students to campus with a letter informing them that they will find no safe spaces or trigger warnings there, because education is meant to make them uncomfortable. This is just the latest development in what has been described as a culture war on college campuses between sensitivity and freedom of speech. Given that many of the people writing about this “war” are either reporters or professors, people who are only tangentially in contact with the student body, I thought it was worth sharing my experiences as a student at a very liberal Ivy League University.
First off, the call for more sensitivity on campus has in no way degraded the education I’ve received during my time at Yale. We didn’t avoid reading John Donne even though some of his poetry is incredibly misogynistic, and Eugenics wasn’t ignored even though it's one of the most deeply disturbing and offensive scientific theories to ever exist. Indeed, the events of the past year, such as the debate about whether to rename Calhoun college or abolish the title of "Master," have actually led to a more diverse and interesting discussion, enhancing my education.
Second, calls for sensitivity have not had anywhere near the effect on campus life that those who oppose it want their readers to believe. Despite their insistence that trigger warnings are ruining education, I haven’t encountered a single one at Yale. Despite their insistence that college students are dependent on “safe spaces,” I haven’t met a single person so insulated that they couldn’t grapple with the very real problems of the world without needing a retreat. Despite their insistence that this will give students an incredibly thin skin as they venture out into the world, the people I’ve spoken with seem more ready to face real injustice and strife than many who criticize them.
This is because, as many have forgotten, being willing to speak out about things one finds wrong and offensive does not mean one is an oversensitive baby. No one that I have encountered has said they will leave campus or transfer to another university if the change they want to see doesn’t occur. They are simply willing to protest what they believe isn't right. They have expressed frustration, anger, and disappointment, yes, but underlying it all has been a quiet strength, a willingness to engage with the very things that they detest. When did that become a sign of weakness?
There is a place in any educational experience for discomfort, and those who speak out against political correctness cite this truth as the reason they’re speaking out. But in doing so, they reveal their own misunderstanding, both of the argument they espouse and the movement they're criticizing. The discomfort we feel in education should come from reasoned discussion or intelligent engagement with opinions or viewpoints not our own, as it does for those protesting. It should not come from the carelessness or thoughtlessness of our peers or the university that claims to be our home. Indeed, the people actually trying to insulate themselves from opinions and views that make them uncomfortable are those who argue that sensitivity and serious discussions about the ramifications of names or titles have no place on college campuses. Those who protest are engaging intelligently with the things that make them uncomfortable, in the true spirit of intellectual inquiry. If only those who hid behind calling them coddled would do the same.