In a speech at Morehouse College in 1948, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically”.
Over the past several months, student movements on many school campuses across the country have been covered prominently by the media. Issues of broad societal justice is on the minds of many of these students, ranging from cultural and racially insensitive comments, to demands for major administrative reforms. Reflecting on Martin Luther King’s observation, thinking critically is to objectively analyze a topic and reach the best judgment that you can about it. I asked myself if this is what is happening on campuses across the country.
In my opinion, students are being increasingly coddled at universities and schools and are not thinking critically. I find myself in full agreement with President Obama when he said the following at a town hall meeting in Des Moines, Iowa in September 2015. “I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative, or they don’t want to read a book if it had language that is offensive to them. I don’t agree that when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them”.
Intellectual freedom as well as freedom of expression is a fundamental right in a democracy and a privilege that not enough people enjoy in this world. Yes, some people abuse this freedom and are offensive. But a society becomes strong and vibrant when it bands together to push out those taking advantage of their freedoms. Ultimatums and campus disruptions are not beneficial to the overall atmosphere of learning on campus. Those measures create backlash and prolong the issue. Indeed, the backlash to protests has been building among both administrators and students on many campuses. At Princeton University, in response to student demonstrations, over a thousand students signed a petition, fighting back and demanding that Princeton maintain its commitment to free speech.
Microaggression and Trigger warnings are new words that have become common parlance. I had to look them up. As detailed in the September 2015 edition of The Atlantic (The Coddling of the American Mind), microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent, but are thought of as a kind of violence. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. Additionally, on some campuses, it is considered an act of microaggression if somebody asks you where you were born. And on other campuses, works such as The Great Gatsby are required to come with a warning. These are discussed by the press as the result of the resurgence of political correctness. But if saying “America is the land of opportunity” is viewed as micro-aggression, as the California university system learned recently, has it not gone too far?
All of this isn’t to say that acts of prejudice and aggression should be permitted or that the cause and beliefs of people should be marginalized, but that we shouldn’t create a bubble on student campuses wherein the slightest transgression is viewed as a microcosm of everything that is unjust in society. There will always be people in the world that are intolerant and insensitive. But with the promotion of learning, intellectual curiosity, and critical thinking, pockets of such intolerance will be dwarfed by constellations of people that believe in empathy and peace and justice for all.