College Is Not for Coddling
WASHINGTON -- Trigger warning: I'm about to commit a micro-aggression. Maybe a macro one. Here goes: Yale students worked up over an email about Halloween costumes, grow up. Learn some manners. Develop some sense of judgment and proportion.
The Yalies are all spun up over Halloween costumes -- specifically, an administrator's suggestion that an official email cautioning against offensive outfits was unwise and, indeed, infantilizing. The email, from Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis, was caveated and respectful.
Still, she wondered, "Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious? ... And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power?"
Her husband Nicholas, the Silliman College master, suggested an alternate approach, Christakis wrote. "If you don't like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society."
This mild questioning backfired, spectacularly. Irony alert: Christakis was arguing to empower the students to decide how to dress themselves. In response, these supposedly adult students behaved like, well, infants, demanding an apology from both Christakises.
When that was not forthcoming, they -- well, some of them -- had a tantrum. If you think I am exaggerating, watch the video of students confronting Nicholas Christakis. "Walk away, he doesn't deserve to be listened to," says one student, perfectly capturing the mindset of intolerance. "Who the [expletive] hired you?" another screams at Christakis. "You should not sleep at night, you are disgusting."
To criticize this response is not necessarily to say that Erika Christakis was correct. No doubt, Yale can be an uncomfortable place for minority students. After her email, the campus was roiled by an accusation, still disputed, that a fraternity turned away African-Americans trying to get into a party, saying it was for "white girls only." In that context, the equities of avoiding offense to fellow community members and promoting free expression may tip in the direction of the former. Suggesting that students be mindful and considerate of how their costumes might offend others may be appropriate, not disempowering.
But this is precisely the important discussion Christakis was attempting to launch, and what going to college is -- or should be -- all about. The possibility of this reasoned interchange is foreclosed when a tempered communication is greeted by vitriol and outrage.
The Yale episode is important because it reflects disturbing twin trends across higher education: suppression of speech that is unwelcome and overreaction to offensive episodes.
The recent events at the University of Missouri reflect the second trend. Yes, the racial climate there sounds awful: The student body president being called the N-word; a white student shouting racial slurs at a black group; a swastika drawn with feces. No student should have to tolerate living in such a hostile environment.
And yet, the response -- a hunger strike by graduate student Jonathan Butler to force the university president to step down, seems disproportionate to the offense. Not the offense of racial slurs -- the offense of the university's reaction. University President Tim Wolfe failed to get out of his convertible when student protesters swarmed it during the homecoming parade. Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin waited too long to condemn the N-word incident.
This hardly feels like George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door. Indeed, it hardly feels like University of Louisville President James Ramsey dressing in a poncho and sombrero for Halloween. Yet, Wolfe is out, and Loftin is stepping aside.
More complicated factors may have been at work in Missouri. The football team exercised its economic muscle to demand Wolfe's ouster. The faculty was revolting against Loftin over budget cuts. But the punishment seems disproportionate to their supposed offenses.
Writing in The Atlantic recently, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warn of the new "coddling" of college students: "A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense."
College is not supposed to be a "safe space," as one Yale student demanded. It is supposed to be a provocative environment -- broadening, not sheltering. When professors have to worry about showing famous paintings with topless women (degrading), and when they are instructed that "America is the land of opportunity" constitutes a micro-aggression, something is seriously amiss.
And that is scarier than any Halloween costume.
(c) 2015, Washington Post Writers Group