A recent spate of campus protests — namely, a particularly contentious response to conservative author Charles Murray, who spoke at Middlebury College on March 1 — has broken new ground in think pieces penned by older Americans. These criticisms serve to revitalize the long tradition of deploring colleges’ descents into so-called “safe spaces” and college students’ penchants for bubble-wrapping themselves against ideas they deem unpleasant. The country’s young people, these writers argue, have become too soft, narrow-minded and idealistic in believing that they can use protest to eliminate opinions they don’t agree with.
In his recent piece “The Dangerous Safety of College,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni writes: “The moral of the recent melee at Middlebury College, where students shouted down and chased away a controversial social scientist, isn’t just about free speech, though that’s the rubric under which the ugly incident has been tucked. It’s about emotional coddling. It’s about intellectual impoverishment.”
Coddling? One is forced to wonder if Bruni understands how condescending and close-minded his phrasing is. No one is being coddled in this day and age, except perhaps a certain demographic of people who have never had to worry about ingrained prejudice against them. College students are as angry and afraid as everyday Americans. How can they be pillowed and safe when they remain rooted in the real and terrifying arena of American politics, fearing deportation for themselves and their families, fearing lack of access to health care, fearing that they will not be able to re-enter the United States and fearing violence against themselves for the color of their skin? Separated from their parents and hometown communities, students are being thrust into a political reality alone for the first time.
When a speaker like Murray comes to Middlebury College, with his history of asserting that a biological intelligence gap exists between white and black people, students have a right to be angry (though, it should be noted, not a right to cause injury). This is because college is not a vacuum. College is not a bubble; rather, it is a microcosm of reality, a practice for the real battle to come. Universities are not windowless compounds where students remain closed off from the outside world for four years. The fact remains: Students work in cities, involve themselves in political campaigns, read and write the news and travel to experience the cultures of foreign countries. Many students pay their own tuition. Some students have families to take care of.
It is impossible to live in a soft, liberal-only environment when students receive CNN alerts several times a day about the incompetent president’s every move, read reports about mass shootings and police brutality and are constantly bombarded with the violent targeting of brown Americans due to their race. This environment cannot be a bubble when refugees are told that the American dream is not for them, the city of Flint still lacks access to clean water, transgender Americans are denied the basic dignity of using the bathroom, Planned Parenthood is defunded and steep limitations to abortion persist.
Campus protest is less about crafting a “safe space” than about utilizing vigor and collective passion to organize against a set of ideas that are so clearly backward. And to ask college students to be quiet — moreover, that they politely let Murray talk: That implies inaction. And this is dangerous territory to tread. Because where, then, does this being quiet turn into something far more lethal: passivity? If university life is preparation for the real world, and students are to tolerate these ideas now in their four years, then where does this take them when they graduate? If they are taught to be quiet now, when will it be acceptable for them to speak up?
If older Americans have the gall to lecture college students on respect and open-mindedness, want to tell them to sit down and shut up and receive the well-rounded higher education they paid for, then they at least should give students the credit of using the education they’ve received. College students are informed and intelligent, rhetorical and incisive. They will not tolerate hatred, will not give hateful people a platform and will continue to protest bigotry with all the force of the intellectual and argumentative tools they have been given.
University students were taught to use their words to argue. They were educated about global revolutions and the promise of the people. They took decades worth of history and social studies classes, read dozens of books warning against fascism and authoritarianism and Big Brother. And throughout it all, they were tested on and evaluated upon their abilities to apply this material. So now, when it is time to reflect on the most important lessons learned in college — the skill of speaking and arguing one’s own opinion — they are told to hold back, rethink, delve once again into hypothesis and theory?
How dare anyone restrain them. Older Americans gave these students their education, and now they must contend with a reality in which students finally take it upon themselves to apply it.
It is a highly narrow-minded and pretentious perspective to paint college students as soft, liberal babies who cannot even stand to hear opinions that disagree with them. No. The threat of the real world — with all its bigotry and hate — does not end at the university gate. And after almost two decades of sitting in classrooms and being given detentions for talking out of hand, college students owe it to no one to continue to practice their listening skills, especially when applied to speech that denigrates themselves and those they love. Students owe it to no one to tolerate and listen to hatred, least of all themselves.
Perhaps those who propose that hate speech be allowed to exist on campus should look inside themselves and determine their own motivation for wanting students to tolerate and listen to reprehensible rhetoric such as that of Murray. Just as the world will not benefit from offering platforms to hateful speakers, so, too, does it go for colleges. Whose mind will be enlightened, pray tell, if he or she just takes the time to respect and listen to Murray or former Breitbart Editor Milo Yiannopoulos or someone in the vein of White House chief adviser Stephen Bannon or white nationalist Richard Spencer?
Of course, protests that utilize violence should never be tolerated. Nor should the starting of fires, the vandalism of buildings or the injuring of people. But intellectual and rhetorical peaceful protest, arguments that stem from deeply held values and that challenge personal beliefs — that is what college is for. That is what life is for. And if older Americans want to sit in the real world and pretend that college students exist outside of it, then they should at least give students the credit of practicing the skills they’ve been taught and conditioned with for 20 years.