There’s been a lot of debate, appropriately enough, about University of Chicago dean John Ellison’s letter warning freshmen not to expect “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” on campus. Much of that debate has focused on free speech – and rightly so. But there’s a larger issue at play.
Ellison’s defense of academic freedom raises an important question: What’s a college education for? Is it simply for job training? Many people seem to think so. They go to get a certain degree that will enable them to pursue a certain career. Get in, study, get that sheepskin, get out, start making the bucks, right?
But that narrow view, however pragmatic it may seem, is a good way to cheat yourself. Because college should mean more than that. It should sharpen your intellect, expose you to new ideas, develop your ability to think critically, and enable you to reflect on the purpose of the well-developed life.
You can’t do that in the cramped atmosphere created by political correctness. You need academic freedom.
The brain isn’t a muscle in the physical sense, but in the educational sense, that’s exactly what it is. And a muscle that isn’t exercised atrophies. It’s weak and unable to do anything useful. You have to make it work.
So when you go into the gym, or slip on your jogging shoes, or do whatever exercise you do, you don’t coddle your body. You push it. It will tell you it’s tired, that the exercise is hard, that it wants to quit. It wants a “safe space,” but you don’t give it one, and why? Because you know it won’t get stronger unless you challenge it.
That’s exactly what a college education should do for your mind. You wouldn’t work with a trainer who gave you a bunch of powderpuff exercises and made sure you never broke a sweat. And why? Because you know it would be a waste of time – that you’d never improve, never get stronger.
Yet a lot of people expect a college professor – a trainer of the mind – to go easy on them. They demand “trigger warnings” before they encounter the horror of a different point of view. In fact, they prefer to be shielded altogether. They huff, they cry, they rage if they hear someone say something that doesn’t align with what they already think.
Of course, “think” is too generous a word for what they’re doing. They’ve adopted a certain worldview – not through the use of reason, but through osmosis. Their opinions on every topic under the sun carry the same weight as the laws of physics. Someone who doesn’t agree with them on, say, climate change, might as well be claiming the sun sets in the east.
It’s a sign of how coddled they’ve been since birth. Imagine going all the way through elementary and high school in a protective bubble. It’s a shame that college professors have to engage in such remedial work, and I don’t blame them for wanting to throw up their hands and pass the little darlings along. But just because everyone before them has abdicated their responsibilities doesn’t mean they should, too.
“Don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them,” President Obama said in a commencement speech at Howard University. “There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that, no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.”
He’s right. So is John Ellison, who’s done his students a great favor. It’s time to stop tiptoeing through the minefield of political correctness. It’s time to read widely, listen carefully, debate respectfully – and think.
Ed Feulner is the former president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.