Our recent campus upheavals, focusing at times on offensive speech, have provoked a worry: are colleges infantilizing their students? Last March, the journalist and cultural critic Judith Shulevitz raised this concern in a tour de force of an op-ed, in which she argued that protecting students from offensive speech, except in the most extreme cases, is a species of educational malpractice: “People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled.” This argument has since taken off.
It has taken off, in part, because it is a good argument. To take one of Shulevitz’s own examples, students invite the charge that they are infantilizing themselves when they construct a “safe space” that contains “cookies, coloring books, Play-doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, and a video of frolicking puppies,” particularly when this safe space is to protect them from being “bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.”
I don’t want to dissent from Shulevitz and others who have made related arguments, but I do think that the debate between those who wish to protect students from offensive speech and those who want to expose them to it is incomplete.
John Stuart Mill, one of the foremost champions of freedom of discussion had no illusions concerning its benefits. “I acknowledge,” he says in On Liberty, that the tendency of all opinions to become sectarian is not cured by the freest discussion but heightened and exacerbated thereby.” Mill thinks that free discussion will tend to heighten partisanship, as those whose dear and cherished beliefs are challenged by their intellectual and political enemies cling to those beliefs all the more fiercely. For Mill, this drawback is made right by the benefits that accrue to people who are observing the quarrel: “It is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander, that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect.”
I think that Mill is right and that although the trade-off he describes is plausible in public discussions, it would be a peculiar model to follow in a college setting. Clearly our job is not only to, so to speak, toughen up our students, though that couldn’t hurt, but to educate our students to benefit, as Mill’s “calmer and more disinterested bystander” does, from the free exchange of ideas. That many of our students at present are not in a position to do so is no reflection on their childishness. Anyone who has paid a moment’s attention to “adult” political discourse will have noticed that getting angry, alleging bad faith, taking umbrage, and even demanding censorship, are standard. This is not new, though I don’t deny that our therapeutic response to it is somewhat new. As Hamilton says in Federalist #1 of “cases of great national discussion,” in which people’s interests and passions are deeply implicated, “a torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose.”
Insofar as such discussions work their way onto college campuses, there is no reason to think that simply throwing our students into so polluted a sea in the hopes of hardening them, will result in an education. For that reason, I think it is singularly unimaginative to try to resolve the problem of a too liberal academy by inviting, though of course people are welcome to invite whomever they want, conservative controversialists like Milo Yiannopoulos to our campuses. Instead, we need to think much more than we presently do about teaching our students how to benefit from the arguments they hear.
John Locke, in Some Thoughts on Education distinguishes between the “art and formality of disputing,” which tends to turn a student into “an insignificant wrangler, opinionated in discourse, and priding himself in contradicting others,” and the art of reasoning. I am not sure whether our present focus on “critical thinking,” even when it somehow gets through to our students, does enough to distinguish between wrangling and reasoning, or between philosophy and sophistry. But I am confident that a “Crossfire” approach to campus discussion is not going to help our students make such distinctions.
To throw our students into such an atmosphere and invite them to deliberate may avoid the danger of infantilizing them but it also demands more of our students than we demand of adults. Indeed, in some ways the university oscillates between treating students too much as adults and treating them too much as children.
In a Slate column, Eric Posner, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, inadvertently illustrates the problem. On the one hand, he argues that today’s students are like children and consequently need protection. In the midst of an exaggerated argument in favor of this proposition, he says at least one sensible thing, namely that professors know that students need an education, which is why classrooms are not typically free for alls, in which students go at each other, hammer and tongs. But then he says that colleges should give in to student demands for protection because “that’s what most students want.” So which is it? Are we supposed to treat students like children, in need of protection, or like adult sovereign consumers?
The answer, as I suspect most teachers grasp, is that college-aged students are neither children, to be protected from scary ideas nor adults, who either, in Posner’s way of viewing things, should have what they want or, in Shulevitz’s (to judge from the op-ed alone), should be thrown into the water and told to swim. They are neither children nor adults, and what we owe them is an education.
The education I have in mind makes no sacrifices with respect to inquiry into the questions that divide us. Instead, it puts the aim of conversation inside and outside the classroom, at the center of education, and thereby demands that our approach to conversation be tailored to that aim. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates admonishes Thrasymachus, who cares only about whether he has won or lost the argument, in these terms: “the argument is not about just any question but about how one should live.”
How do people who genuinely think they can make progress in important matters act in conversation? Among other things, they practice the courage that enables them to continue an inquiry in the face of threats to their cherished beliefs, and the moderation that enables them to hear others out and to look for what use can be made of their arguments, rather than for how their arguments can be dismissed. But what every educator who has reflected on his or her experience knows is that such virtues do not come naturally to people. All our attentiveness as teachers may barely be sufficient to cultivate them in our students.