Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Universe: A Safe Place?

The Economist
June 13, 2015

In an anonymous article, "Trigger-unhappy" (The Economist, June 13th, 2015), I'm told that free speech is threatened on American campuses by 'activists' who view anything provocative as a violation of students' right to feel 'safe':
A crucial word . . . [on campuses these days] is "safe". Campus activists have stretched the meaning of safety from an important but second-order concern - shielding students from serious harm - to a defining ambition for any well-run academy. From town-sized public universities to tiny liberal-arts colleges, students have declared and administrators accepted that teachers or visiting speakers should aim for a psychologically safe learning environment, avoiding ideas or imagery that might prove distressing.

Activists sometimes organise campus "safe spaces" where students may flee alarming material. Door-stickers denote full-time safe zones for specific groups, such as gay and transgender students, or religious non-believers [i.e., non-religious people]. Demands have multiplied for "trigger warnings" - a device first seen in self-help and feminist internet forums, signalling content that may trigger painful memories - to be applied to challenging books, films or lectures.
Well, the universe is a scary place, but be careful, students, you might get what you're after, namely, a less-safe place as a university professor someday:
[Critics] see a reap-what-you-sow irony, as politically correct culture warriors of the 1980s and 1990s are devoured by their own heirs . . . . An online essay headlined "I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me" went viral.
How terrifying. But what's really going on? According to the Economist:
At root this is a fight about power, with feelings wielded as weapons.
That sounds accurate enough (with even professors claiming to 'feel' terrified), and it leads to this warning:
Students should beware of winning too many victories. A perfectly safe university would not be worth attending.
I spent three years at a university where the social studies group criticized the philosophers group for daring to question political correctness! "But . . ." I wanted to exclaim, "but that sort of questioning is what philosophers are supposed to do!" To their credit, the philosophers shrugged off the complaints and questioned political correctness anyway, so I didn't need to do any exclaiming.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows my view on free speech: entirely for it. I've not taught in American universities since the 1980s, so I don't know how accurate this Economist article is, though I suspect there's some exaggeration about students' views on restricting free speech.

But I'm willing to hear from readers with firsthand experience . . .

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