Earlier this year in Berkeley, California, student demonstrators took to the streets to protest the university’s invitation of conservative media pundit Ben Shapiro, who had previously had his invitation to speak retracted due to concerns of violent protest; in March, Professor Stanger of Middlebury College was hospitalized trying to protect invited speaker Charles Murray from being attacked by student protesters; student demonstrators at Wesleyan tried to defund a student-run publication because an individual published an article critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. These incidents encapsulate what is for me a dire problem that has engulfed schools across the the United States: academic institutions, universities in particular, are falling victim to identity politics, sacrificing intellectualism and rational discussion for ‘safe spaces’ and unrealistic standards of intellectual conformity. I believe this trend threatens to transform the university experience from one of intellectual and personal growth to one of intolerance and anti-intellectualism.
Universities have long been bastions of liberalism (generally speaking); however, accompanying this left-leaning culture was a certain intellectual dynamism, a willingness to entertain opposing viewpoints and discuss, debate and exchange ideas. As liberalism in the United States began to embrace a fierce brand of identity politics, a culture of defensiveness and sensibility was nurtured, encouraging the rise of “trigger warnings” (very distinct from its original connotation regarding mental health) and fervid reactions against “offensive” manifestations of free speech; holding distinct viewpoints detracted from your intellect and humanity and made you subject to severe alienation. Subsequently, many academic institutions began to cater to this culture, establishing the “safe space.” The original notion of the safe space, as I understand it, was to grant students (LGBT students in particular) a space in which they wouldn’t be subject to harassment or discrimination in a learning environment, discrimination and harassment which could hinder their ability to learn — I understand and sympathize with this rationale, and I understand that speech can certainly engender harm. However, a line must be drawn between harassment (bullying) and taking offense from someone’s distinct opinion. I find that the safe space has mutated, now shielding students from discomforting and foreign ideas and truths; safe spaces, instead of protecting students from harassment, are now used to protect students from ideas and opinions they dislike and thus find “offensive.” I find this transformation to be harmful, as safe spaces are promoting intolerance and fragility instead of inclusion and solidarity; protection from harm has morphed into a form of xenophobia.
This “anti-intellectualism” on campus has severe consequences. First and foremost: free speech comes under attack — schools are breeding a new generation of educated Americans who disregard the principle of free speech as a vehicle of offense and injustice instead of as a conduit for democracy and liberty. Students leave school having not truly been educated with novel ideas but instead only having had their intellectual bubbles reinforced; furthermore, because of the veil of intellectual conformity created by fringe activists on campuses, students will leave college unable to entertain or discuss different ideas, skills vital in professional life and personal enlightenment. I fear that if this culture continues to dominate academic institutions, schools will no longer serve as forums for discussion and learning, but as echo chambers and beacons of intellectual intolerance. In my eyes, academic institutions are not responsible for conserving the emotional or intellectual sanctity of its students; they’re responsible for diversifying opinions, cultivating open and critical thinking, and fostering discussion. Hannah Holborn Grey, the former president of UChicago, stated it best: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.” It’s time for schools to start educating again.