At the University of Michigan, a group of cowardly students forced the cancellation of a showing of the film American Sniper, claiming it “promotes anti-Muslim…rhetoric” and “create(s) an unsafe space that does not allow for positive dialogue.” Although I have not seen the movie, the various reviews I’ve seen make it clear that viewers are walking away from the film with different interpretations. Which is to say that it appears to be precisely the kind of movie that actively promotes critical thinking and creates an opportunity for students to engage in productive dialogue.

These efforts–too often successful–to preemptively foreclose debate because it might make some students uncomfortable seem to be growing in frequency. This is a disturbing trend. It’s different from the familiar habit of college administrators trying to squelch free speech because they want a nice, quiet, Stepford campus. This is college students demanding they not be exposed to ideas because they don’t want to be discomfited.

But that’s what education is about. We don’t learn unless we are made uncomfortable. The most well-educated person is the one who regularly reads those whose views are opposed to their own, who can make their intellectual opponents’ arguments as accurately–or even more so–than their opponents can, and who can accurately critique the weaknesses of their own perspective. There’s an old saying that a good research project is one in which you can believe the author’s mind could be changed.

This is the heart of the liberal arts ideal. By studying economics, my views on politics were challenged and changed. By studying anthropology and evolution, my understanding of human nature and the possibilities of human organization were shaped, which structured my views on politics. By studying psychology my perspective on the possibility of markets was refined.

If students refuse to be challenged, they will never become educated. If they run from debate by shutting it down, they will never hear challenges to their perspectives, will never learn the weaknesses of their ideas, will never learn to critically evaluate their beliefs, and will never learn to intellectually defend their understanding of the world around them.

In short, these students have rejected the ideal of the liberal arts education.

The liberal arts are a hard sell these days. People want to know how their course of study will lead to a job. All evidence is that a liberal arts education is a great basis for a broad range of careers, but perhaps too broad, because the direct connections may not exist. I can explain to students how a history major became an international shipping executive, or how an English Major ended up managing international supply chains, but the paths are so contingent, so unique and unrepeatable, that they provide little clear guidance. So students, or at least their parents, shy away from the liberal arts.

And of course careers matter, especially given the cost of college. But the reason the liberal arts are a good foundation for careers is because they train people to think and to learn, to incorporate disparate ideas from different fields and link them together to make sense of things. But not only do too few people see how that connects to careers, they no longer–assuming many people ever did–value critical thinking for itself, for its intrinsic value and the intangible value it adds to the individual’s life. They don’t value it for what it makes of a person.

This is the consequence: students who demand they not be challenged because it is uncomfortable, who demand intellectual safety over intellectual challenge, and who view their epistemic closure as right- thinking.

In the bigger picture this matters because a self-governing republic very well may require an educated populace: people who can think critically about different policy alternatives; citizens who can recognize that their own favored ideas are also imperfect; a public that can understand that vigorous public debate and open discussion of alternatives they dislike is not a threat to liberty but is the essence of liberty; a public that can accept electoral and policy losses without interpreting them as a sign of the system’s illegitimacy.

There is an irony for conservatives here. They have in many ways been at the forefront of the attack on the liberal arts, both because they don’t see enough monetary value in, for example, a theater degree, and because they object to the ways in which liberal academics have challenged their world view and made them uncomfortable. And now there are an increasing number of liberal students taking up that cause and making the same demands, but about conservative views.

And there is also an irony for liberals. In the 1960s liberal students fought for the right to freely discuss and learn about challenging ideas–they fought for intellectual openness. Today liberal students fight against free discussion and teaching of challenging ideas–they fight for intellectual closure.

The American academy is deeply imperiled by a host of factors, including rising costs, a public that doesn’t appreciate what education really does for a person, professors who don’t think it’s their job to teach the public that value (while sneering at them for not understanding it), anti-intellectual administrators, and accrediting agencies that impose ever more inflexible standards that undermine creativity and experimentation in teaching. If the idea of education is assaulted by the students as well, our last best hope for an educated public may disappear.


Category: School

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36 Responses to Student Censorship and the Death of the Liberal Arts

  1. Oscar Gordon says:

    Perhaps it’s time for the academy to just start failing such students, or at least telling them to go spend a few years in the real world and come back when they’ve matured a bit & are ready for the rigorous challenges of a University education.

    • fillyjonk says:

      That’s partly why I love it when I find out I have former/retired military people, or other non-trads in my classes. They have a sense of perspective.

      I once had a Gulf War vet in a botany class. He earned a D on an exam – he came to apologize to me but admitted, “Once you’ve been shot at, earning a D on an exam isn’t such a horrible thing. But I will do better next time” (and he did).

      I find some of the freak-outs that some of my traditional students have (freak outs over very small things) to be tiring in the extreme. I try to be sympathetic but man it’s hard.

      • trumwill says:

        I’d have thought that your students would mostly be of the nontraditional variety.

        • fillyjonk says:

          We have a lot, but by no means a majority. (But the ones we do have are as frustrated as I am over an 18 year old crying over the equivalent of a broken fingernail when the non-trad is trying to juggle work, caring for aging parents, and raising kids….)

        • James Hanley says:

          I hear you. I find that all that helps me keep my sanity sometimes is recognizing that they’re still adolescents, and it’s more their parents’ (and our culture’s) fault than our own. But how to deal with it? We can’t coddle them, but it shouldn’t be our job to do what their parents should have done. Our job is to educate them, not raise them.

  2. trumwill says:

    In “How I Joined The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (And Found Inner Peace)”, Harry Stein had a list of things that might tip you off that you’re a Republican. One of which is that you visit the school and the only person there who shares your values is the football coach.

    Well, Coach Harbaugh spoke up, and the university reversed course.

    • jhanley says:

      I’m bored by people like Klein. Academia is not devoid of conservatives. They are in the distinct minority, yes, and primarily because academics are not really different from other people, and want to select people who share their world view. Ironically, the people who whine about liberal indoctrination (not you, Will, I’m talking about others) often really just wasn’t conservative indoctrination (and conservative students also often just want to avoid hearing views that make them uncomfortable).

      There’s actual data out there, and largely it shows variation by discipline. See here, for example, looking at social scientists. Anthro has a huge preponderance of Democrats, but how likely are American conservatives to engage in in-depth and sympathetic study of other cultures? Political Science is clearly dominantly Democratic, but there are also clearly Republicans in the discipline. And Economics has about 1/4 Republicans (and most of the Democrats will not be far left).

      But if you look here, you’ll see that about half of engineering and business profs are conservative.

      And not all faculty actually push their ideology in the classroom. Some do, and it’s bad form, but a lot don’t. At least half my majors are conservatives while my colleague is a liberal, but in 11 years I’ve never heard a student complain that my colleague made him feel uncomfortable.

      Bear in mind also that students, like faculty, probably distribute among majors partly by ideology. Conservative students mostly are drawn to econ or business over Soc or anthro. So a lot of what they are complaining about is, “I had to take a Soc class and the prof was soooo liberal,” or, “My American Government prof dissed Fox News, the leftist douchebag.”

      • fillyjonk says:

        In some cases, faculty may be “closet conservatives” because they don’t want to deal with being harangued by colleagues for their different voting record or whatever, so an otherwise liberal department may have one or two “dissenters.”

      • Trumwill says:

        Sorry, didn’t clarify that Stein was taking about his kids’ middle school. It was a joke more than anything, but this reminded me of it.

        • trumwill says:

          Which is not to say you wouldn’t be bored of him in any event, but I had been unclear.

        • James Hanley says:

          I think it takes a special kind of person to teach middle school. So special that surely they must have their own distinct ideological persona (if “crazy” qualifies as an ideology).

          More seriously, I’m not too bothered by middle school teachers being liberal as a group. I doubt many kids have a life-long ideological tendency because of something their middle school teacher said. And because middle school is a rough time psychologically because kids are hitting puberty, and because that’s when gay and transgender kids start to gain more awareness of themselves, I think it’s probably good to have teachers who are less judgmental on that particular issue, just for the sake of those non-normal kids.

          Now early primary school teacher who are teaching first and second graders about the imminent global environmental catastrophe….that’s a problem because the kids aren’t psychologically mature enough to deal with huge issues about which they feel entirely powerless. Those teachers should be flogged.

        • trumwill says:

          I guess you weren’t around when I was subbing, but to my utter shock, I enjoyed middle school. That’s four words in consecutive order that are utterly alien to me, and I didn’t expect it at all.

          I had a bit of a hard time corralling the young ones, and felt awkward as a male teacher. The high schoolers were so… indifferent. Rather than the worst of both worlds I was expecting, middle school was kind of a sweet spot*.

          If I go back and do the teaching thing, I may do so with an eye on middle school.

          * – Except the remedial courses. That was the worst of just about every imaginable world.

  3. James Hanley says:

    So on my Facebook link, one of my students admits he’d probably have joined the protestors. On another unrelated post from the same day he wrote simply #loversofliberty. I don’t mean to be too harsh on him, he’s a good and bright guy. But it’s emblematic of how “liberty” is just a mantra in America–we utter it as the invocation of a magic word, without thinking much about what it entails.

    • trumwill says:

      I came up during the tail end of the “Hate Speech Isn’t Free Speech” era. Like, it had mostly died down by the time I got to college, but there were a lot of references to it. In a couple of video classes I’d taken, filmed a few years prior, it was discussed. It actually seemed agreed upon that hate speech could and would be outlawed eventually (alongside the inevitability of the metric system).

      There are still some people that make that argument, but it’s instead sort of been accepted that it’s an uphill climb, and not just because the courts haven’t recognized it just yet.

      I suspect trigger warnings and the like will, ultimately, pass the same way this did. It’s not a sustainable model of discourse.

      • James Hanley says:

        I’m more sympathetic to trigger warnings. I don’t think they should be required, and I don’t think they’re needed for every piece of writing. But they can be a courtesy.

        If the demands for them are used as a way to just attack people or to shut down debate, that would be unacceptable. And if they’re expected for every possibly upsetting thing in a course that necessarily deals with potentially upsetting issues, then a trigger warning at the beginning of the course that “this course deals with controversial issues, including rape, genocide, racism, etc. etc.” should be all the courtesy anyone could reasonably ask for, I think.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          My issue with Trigger Warnings is they seem to be the emotional equivalent of Gluten Free.

          Yes there are people for whom they are nearly required, but I suspect there is a much larger population for whom it’s a fad.

        • trumwill says:

          To the extent to which trigger warnings are the equivalent of “This movie contains violent and sexual content” warnings I have no problem with them. In fact, I was on board when it was that instead of a means of evasion.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          I should have been clearer. I’ve no problem with content warnings per se (e.g. The following may contain material that some may find upsetting or objectionable). It’s the strident demands for them to be everywhere & to be specific to the type.

  4. Oscar Gordon says:

    You can have safe spaces & unsafe people, or you can have safe people & unsafe places. One is much easier to do than the other, but it requires modest effort from everyone, as opposed to exceptional effort from a few.

  5. Michael Drew says:

    It sounds to me like what has happened is that the university, responding to outrage, now is forcing, in the name of freedom of expression, one of its offices (the Center for Campus Involvement, which is focused on inclusion), which had considered showing a particular film – in a forum whose purpose was social inclusion, not intellectual appraisal of the film (the film was just meant as means to social inclusion in this context; anyone seeking to show the film on campus in a context of critical intellectual engagement with it remained free to do so throughout) – and then elected not to show it because it was brought to their attention that it was detracting from the particular aim of this even of social inclusion, to show the film. And indeed, when the Center proposed using their (ostensible) freedom of expression to further their university-sanctioned purpose of fostering social inclusion by showing the film in a different setting (at another time) that would be more focused on critical engagement than social inclusion, they were similarly overruled. So: “We are so committed to free expression, we are pulling the authority of our Center for Campus Involvement to have an idea about showing a particular film, and then to exercise a different judgement about whether or when to to do so at the initially scheduled time and place or not. Because they are free to express themselves.”

    That sounds like freedom of expression winning the day to me, all right.

    http://publicaffairs.vpcomm.umich.edu/key-issues/statement-regarding-american-sniper-movie/

    Maybe these mostly Muslim and Middle Eastern or North African students who protested the showing of this film in a forum focused on promoting inclusion are sufficiently uncommitted to the ideals of liberal learning that they also would have opposed the showing of the film in a classroom setting, not necessarily within a formal for-credit course, but in a setting in which critical engagement is clearly the purpose of the screening, rather than social inclusion. But their having protested it in the context in which it was in fact to be screened – in a university-sponsored social gathering aimed at fostering social inclusion on campus, doesn’t demonstrate that they would have protested its screening in a more intellectually-oriented context. Nor does it demonstrate that they are interested in foreclosing debate on campus in general, nor that they lack commitment to the value of exposure and engagement with difficult ideas. It just means that when presented with the notion that a screening of American Sniper in a university-sponsored social setting aimed at social inclusion would further that aim, they had a strong view that in fact it would hinder it.

    • Oscar Gordon says:

      The rational response then is, “yeah, I don’t want to see that movie, I’ll stay home & see what is on Netflix instead.”

      Or perhaps write the office a letter expressing an opinion, or maybe a letter to the student newspaper.

      Having a loud protest that gathers national attention is, well, typical of college students who are still learning how to pick their battles.

      I worry more about the adults in charge, who should know better, who fold like wet rags at any kind of protest.

      • Mr. Blue says:

        Hey, the sensitivity warriors were pretty well-behaved this time. There wasn’t even any vandalism of house and home!

      • Michael Drew says:

        They wrote a letter. I’m not sure what else they did.

        The adults recognized choosing that movie didn’t foster inclusion in a social setting. There is nothing wrong with that.

        • Michael Drew says:

          …When social inclusion was the purpose of the forum from the start. As opposed to the thousands of other settings on campus in which critical engagement with the film would have been the purpose (protests to which screenings we do not know would have occurred or not).

        • Mr. Blue says:

          The petition didn’t criticize the venue for showing the movie. It criticized showing the propoganda that perpetuates negative stereotypes and makes people feel unsafe.

        • Michael Drew says:

          Fair enough. But the screening was scheduled in the venue it was scheduled in (a social setting), for the purpose it was scheduled for (fostering social inclusion). That’s the event that was protested. We don’t know what the reaction would have been had it been initially scheduled by a film criticism club with the purpose of discussing its difficult, possibly hurtful, content, in a critical, intellectual, not social-mixer type environment afterward. In other words, a setting aimed directly at pursuing the kind of engagement with difficult ideas on campuses called for in the OP.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          And what about the people who wanted to see Sniper, or didn’t want to see whatever the alternative was?

          Not every event needs to appeal to everyone to be inclusive, & adults should not permit a hecklers veto for the easily offended.

        • Michael Drew says:

          So, what, these students can’t validly object to one particular movie, but others can validly object to every single other movie but that one?

          If someone ended up with a sincere objection to the movie that ended up being shown instead because of a sense of exclusion or for whatever other reason, they would be perfectly within their rights to protest. If it were to happen that way and it ended up making sleeking a movie difficult, to me that would mainly illustrate the importance of using good judgement about selecting activities for these kinds of events to begin with. Why go for something political or difficult at all here in what’s basically meant to be a social mixer focused on not alienating anybody? The film is not the point. And it’s not really a setting that has much to do with the university’s intellectual mission at all. The whole point here is to tend to the social environment on campus, in order to make the setting conducive to students’ academic work. There’s no reason to select a divisive or even challenging film at all for an event like this.

          But, no I don’t think that asserting an entitlement to see one particular film in this context is a concern that anyone needs to credit. And I don’t view any heckler’s veto to have been exercised. Is there simply not to be any feedback from those whose inclusion is being aimed at as to whether a particular film selected for that purpose presents a real, sincere obstacle to fulfilling it? Why wouldn’t there ideally, in fact, be an open discussion about what films would fulfill this purpose between organizers and participants? There was no heckler’s veto here. A group of students expressed their concern. I don’t believe they hold that there is no forum on campus where they would accept that Sniper could be shown in a critically engaged context. But thy did not feel that this film promotes inclusion. Having made their views known, the organizers recognized this and agreed to change the selection. I honestly do not see problem here. It would be entirely different if this were a film club or class on military affairs or Middle Eastern studies. Would these students protest screening this film in those contexts? Maybe, but I certainly think they deserve the benefit of the doubt that they wouldn’t. This protest should be presumed to be about this event.

          I acknowledge that if there were sincere objections to multiple potential movies for this kind of function, it could make choosing movies for this kind of event challenging. But I don’t get the sense that that will turn into a real problem. Though, if it did, so be it. Not every event needs to appeal to everyone in order to be inclusive, but it does need to not viscerally alienate anyone in order to be inclusive. You have a list of possibilities; you go down it until you find one that seems not to provoke sincere objection that it excludes people. It’s not that complicated or difficult a process.

          Objecting that once a film is considered (or even scheduled – is that the distinction we’re placing so much weight upon?) but rejected you then are excluding people if you don’t show it doesn’t hold water. No one gets to demand a particular film be shown, in this or any other context on campus. Again, all sincere objections should be heard, but if objections to alternatives were to proliferate in response to this sincere objection where they hadn’t appeared before, they should be treated as likely insincere. I’m thinking of things like objecting to Paddington Bear because it isn’t American Sniper, or because your great uncle was mauled by a brown bear so it isn’t inclusive, things like that. That type of thing is no sincere and shouldn’t be allowed to derail events like this, nor the process of selecting appropriate material for them.

          If you schedule a film to attract people to a social event aimed at fostering inclusion and it ends up making people feel sincerely unwelcome at that event, it’s perfectly appropriate to change course. No one is being heckled when that happens; no one’s free expression is being trampled. No one is preventing other groups on campus from screening American Sniper. The original decision was unwise and the reversal, as we’ve seen, will invite charges of oversensitivity or what not, but in reality nothing is going awry here. The organizers of an event aimed at inclusion saw that they made a misstep in pursuing that aim by scheduling this movie, and adjusted course. There’s nothing wrong there. Or at least, they tried to do that, until the university prevented them from making that decision about how they would use expression to fulfill their university-sanctioned task, in the name of free expression.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          So I followed links back & read the letter that was circulated, & I’m going to walk back a bit.

          They stated their objection & politely asked to have the film reconsidered. That is a far cry from demanding the showing be changed or canceled.

          This got blown out of proportion by both the reporting media & the university (a simple statement that some students felt the movie inappropriate to the setting would have been sufficient, instead of a rambling statement about harm & inclusion & safety, which is dog whistle for critics)

        • q1 says:

          I definitely agree that none of the communiques in this episode expressed very well the concerns and considerations that were really at play for the communicants. That led everyone down blind alleys of a kind.

        • Michael Drew says:

          It appears one of our cats gave me a different name for that comment.

        • trumwill says:

          I was afraid I was going to have to tell you that those glasses weren’t fooling anybody, Clark

        • Michael Drew says:

          I kind of like the name, actually.

        • Oscar Gordon says:

          For the Bond reference or Star Trek: The Next Generation?

        • Michael Drew says:

          Sort of for a character in a germinal scifi-ish spy thriller or something. Bourne meets the latest Star Trek reboot (which according to some is ‘not Star Trek’) meets Blade Runner meets Looper.

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