Students, teachers, and teaching have been at the center of controversies since Socrates was accused of corrupting his young pupils. The tradition has continued down to the campus unrest of the 1960s, the “political correctness” flaps of the 1980s and 90s, and has lately been manifested in the pronoun wars at the University of Toronto, where Professor Jordan Peterson has refused to use gender-neutral words (“they,” or neologisms like “ze” and “hir”) in addressing self-identified transgender students and colleagues, to heated reactions pro and con, at the U of T and outside it. Some things never change, especially at prestigious academic institutions.
Beyond the specific issues at hand, it’s helpful to consider why colleges and universities are so often the scenes of such impassioned debate around them. In one sense, this is exactly what post-secondary education is for: to propose and argue complex ideas. A school where contentious points about the arts or sciences weren’t being raised wouldn’t be fulfilling its mandate. Inquiry, hypothesis, and, yes, disagreement, whether in the engineering labs or the English classes, are vital to human betterment. Let the debates rage on.
Secondly, these philosophical contests are usually generated by or among the population most energized by idealism and perceived injustice: the young. There’s an aphorism, sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill, to the effect that “A man who is not a liberal at twenty has no heart, and a man who is not a conservative at thirty has no head.” Universities are crowded with people between the ages of twenty and thirty. Nowhere else are matters of politics and principle so important to so many, who all have so much time to think and talk – and quarrel in coffee shops and dorm rooms – about them. Again, so be it.
Lastly, and this is where it gets problematic, campuses are self-contained communities with their own governments, laws, media, and even police. Differences of opinion which go ignored or accommodated in the wider society can be formally adjudicated in the groves of academia. But this possibility – of defining and penalizing offences in ways that are impossible in the outside world – also carries a potential for zealotry. Students can level charges of racism, sexism, homophobia and other wrongs against instructors or classmates, knowing they have a power they could never wield as ordinary citizens; it’s additionally significant that they are not just learners but (directly or indirectly) paying customers, whose protests against a program or professor imply a threat to take their business elsewhere.
As well, colleges and universities are by their nature comprised of the intellectually and economically advantaged, so speech codes, rules of sexual consent, safe spaces, trigger warnings and the like afford children of privilege an opportunity to posture as a vulnerable underclass. It’s that rarefied climate of extreme seriousness and extreme sensitivity that is undermining the value of traditional post-secondary education in the Twenty-First Century. Scholarly dialogue, youthful curiosity, and free thought, which have long made higher learning so beneficial for the cultures which support it, are giving way to orthodoxy, consumerism, and a petty authoritarianism that makes it a crime to say “he” or “she” to the wrong person. Makes you nostalgic for tear gas at Berkeley and Socrates sipping hemlock.