The most offensive thing about the modern university campus is just how easily the people on it take offence. Not everyone, of course. But more than ever, campus politics is dominated by a minority of activists who deem any expression of an opposing point of view an act of aggression that must be prevented.
This is the antithesis of what the university experience is supposed to be all about. The time in our life when most of us are only beginning to appreciate humanity's complexity should not be the moment we choose to close our minds to anything we're told should offend or disturb us. Yet various forms of censorship are the norm on modern campuses. Course material is run through the sieve of political correctness to ensure it passes muster with campus-correctness clerics and their followers. If it doesn't, professors must include trigger warnings on syllabuses to alert students to material that may recall traumatic events in their own lives, such as racism or sexual violence. There's nothing wrong with showing sensitivity. But it becomes a problem when everyone's a victim of some form of oppression or trauma, such that the very topics most worthy of debate become taboo and controversial personalities are barred from speaking on campus.
"Students should be free to argue their beliefs without fear of being labelled intolerant or disrespectful," Alan Levinovitz, a religious-studies professor at Virginia's James Madison University, wrote recently in The Atlantic. "As it stands, that freedom does not exist in most academic settings, except when students' opinions line up with what can be broadly understood as progressive political views."
It would be just as vexing if the political orthodoxy on campus discouraged the expression of liberal viewpoints – and, indeed, that's the case at some Christian evangelical colleges in the United States and Canada. But on most North American campuses, it's the other way around, with anyone expressing support for heterosexual marriage or Israel or even yoga branded as the "enemy." The pile-on is such that most students just choose to keep their mouths shut.
So, it was encouraging to hear about the letter the University of Chicago sent to this year's class of incoming students, telling them to prepare to be bothered and buffeted by a diversity of ideas.
"Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own," U of C dean of students John Ellison wrote.
What might have been an opportunity to debate the very purpose of the modern academy, however, quickly descended into a social-media onslaught against the university and its alleged motives. The letter was alternatively dismissed as a "publicity stunt" and a pander to deep-pocketed donors put off by the political correctness on campus. It was derided for playing into the stereotype of the "coddled millennial" who's grown up in a protective cocoon of affirmation.
I understand why no self-respecting undergrad wants to read what another privileged white male has to say on this matter. I understand how tolerance can sometimes seem like tacit acceptance of what is clearly a repulsive behaviour or point of view. So, instead, consider the advice U.S. President Barack Obama gave last spring to the graduating class of Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C.
"Don't try to shut folks out, don't try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them," Mr. Obama said in May. "There will be times when you shouldn't compromise your core values, your integrity and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they're wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas. And you might as well start practising now, because one thing I can guarantee you, you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks … at every stage of your life."
Better yet, students should, in Prof. Levinovitz's words, see university as a "boot camp, not a hotel." You're there to toughen up for real life, not shield yourself from its infuriating injustices, painful conflicts and, yes, even the Donald Trumps of this world. Because they're everywhere.