George Boardman: Is the free exchange of ideas being sacrificed for political correctness? | TheUnion.com

George Boardman: Is the free exchange of ideas being sacrificed for political correctness?

George Boardman
Columnist

George Boardman

Do we want our colleges and universities to be forums for the free exchange of ideas, or shelters for students who are easily offended by ideas they don't agree with and actions they find personally hurtful?

That's the question posed by a series of student disruptions at some of America's leading institutions of higher learning, a question my generation thought was answered when the Free Speech Movement swept through campuses in the '60s and '70s.

Back then, you could get arrested by UC Berkeley police for trying to raise funds on campus for civil rights causes. That's what happened to occasional grad student Jack Weinberg on Oct. 1, 1964, triggering a massive student protest demanding that administrators lift the ban of on-campus political activity and acknowledge the students' right to free speech and academic freedom.

Free and open discourse became the order of the day, even if some of it was offensive, repulsive or just downright stupid. Students were expected to absorb the blows and respond with strong arguments of their own; you know, the free and open exchange of ideas.

Everybody in the academy was on board with this concept.

"Education should not be intended to make people comfortable," said Hanna Gray, a former president of the University of Chicago. "It is meant to make people think."

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The American Association of University Professors seconded the notion: "The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in the classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual."

But that was then. Today's students — the best and brightest of our young adults — apparently can't take the heat. Instead, they insist on "trigger warnings," protection from "microaggressions," and "safe spaces" where nobody will challenge their beliefs. Two recent incidents illustrate how things have changed.

At Yale University, a debate over Halloween costumes triggered a racially charged protest that had leaders of the elite institution figuratively prostrating themselves before the outraged students.

The incident started when the school's Intercultural Affairs Council urged students to avoid blackface, feathered headdresses or other Halloween costumes that might offend members of the campus community. It escalated when a teacher responded with an email suggesting it may be all right to be "a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive."

Angry students confronted the teacher's husband, a university administrator, screaming obscenities and demanding that he resign because he didn't create a "place of comfort, a home" for students. Later, the president of Yale and the dean of Yale College apologized to the students. "We failed you," said President Peter Salovey.

At the University of Missouri, three alleged racial incidents on a campus of 35,000 students prompted black graduate student Jonathan Butler to go on a hunger strike to protest the "revolting" acts of racism. Black members of the football team then threatened a strike if the university's president didn't resign. He quit two days later.

It apparently didn't occur to the Missouri students that a large public university is a microcosm of the nation, which means the student body will include tolerant as well as hateful people. Even elite institutions like Yale have their share of rednecks and racists. What test should administrators apply to deny admission to these people?

It also didn't seem to matter that details of the racial incidents were sketchy and lacked credible witnesses, or that Butler is hardly an oppressed minority; his father is a top executive at a major railroad who made over $8 million last year. The students' feelings were hurt and they needed to be comforted instead of being urged to fight back.

What's really scary about all this is that students are willing to throttle free speech if they don't agree with what is said. They're even taking aim at another of our First Amendment rights, freedom of the press, and they're being abetted by people who should know better — teachers and administrators.

Protesters at Amherst demanded a ban on posters favoring free speech. Wesleyan undergraduates tried to get the campus newspaper defunded for an op-ed critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. Students at Smith refused media access to a sit-in unless journalists first pledged "solidarity" with protesters.

Then there is Melissa Click, an assistant professor of mass media in the Communications Department at Missouri who held a courtesy appointment at the journalism school, considered one of the best in the country. She was recorded trying to block a student photographer's access to a demonstration, screaming "I need some muscle over here." After the video went viral, she resigned from the journalism school but kept her university position.

But I'm glad to report that some students are not swearing allegiance to the gospel of political correctness, and among them are budding journalists. When a dean at Claremont College resigned after being accused of racism, the Claremont Independent student newspaper took administrators to task.

In a sharply worded editorial, the student journalists berated hypersensitive students for bringing spurious charges of racism, and the dean and president for cowardice in not standing up to the barrage. "Lastly," they wrote, "we are disappointed in students like ourselves, who were scared into silence. We are not racist for having different opinions. We are not immoral because we don't buy the flawed rhetoric of a spiteful movement."

Those kids have a future in the news business.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union.

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