Defenders of liberty assume that speech understood as “threatening” is speech misunderstood. They suggest that ideas and words are best scrubbed clean of such pesky side effects as troubling connotations and that weird feeling you get when characters in fantasy books don’t consider love potions date rape drugs. In a recent essay in The Atlantic titled, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” writers Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that students “are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas,” thus threatening the vitality of liberal education. They ask that we follow the Cartesian rationalists and separate our bodies and passions from our purely rational souls—only then might we uncover the clear and distinct ideas.
But what if the division of the soul from body and passion is nothing more than an Edenic myth? I would like to offer a corresponding concern for the current state of liberal education, but propose an alternative diagnosis. The reluctance to show consideration for the resonance texts have with readers points to a grave situation indeed: that college classrooms aspire to sever the connection between ideas and their significance. If a seminar were a place to look at ideas without being moved by the pleasure and pain they cause, what could we expect from liberal education?
The problem plaguing liberal arts institutions is not that students are feeling too much but rather that they are not expected to feel at all. As a result, topics that broach the darkness of human nature are not shown the treatment they deserve. Students look upon texts as automated translators might: seeing the syntax and listing themes, but missing the humanity reflected on the page in all its terror and beauty. “Trigger warnings,” properly understood, should hearten us, for they indicate that texts ancient and modern have resonance with real life. It should give one hope to see students uncomfortable with the knowledge that heroic Aeneas treats his family poorly. To watch him accidentally leave his first wife in a burning city, precipitate his second wife to commit suicide, and then only wonder how far along he is on his quest is a “perfectly rational” way to miss the point.
The desire to speak without thinking plagues classroom discussions. But trigger warnings should not be conflated with censorship. Censorship involves the dismissal of beliefs or ideas, while a trigger warning should be just what its name suggests: a warning. Consider other warnings you have encountered and the work they perform—for example, a sign that says, “Caution: Uneven Ground” next to a crack in the sidewalk. This sign does two things: first, it brings attention to the ground; and second, it suggests that you approach this ground differently from the ground surrounding it. Similarly, a trigger warning brings attention to the gravity of a text or topic and suggests that the material be considered with heightened care. To wish for an environment in which one may treat scary ideas with a cavalier attitude is absurd. We should not mistake one’s right to do as one pleases with a more enlightened type of freedom: freedom from the “inner and the outer compulsion.” In order to grasp the profundity of free speech one must first learn what it is to speak nobly, and then choose to do so.
But what of those noble few who wish for nothing more than to wrestle with the most serious of questions? Disgust is never an appropriate response to a well-meaning student or speaker whose views differ from dominating liberal ideology. Seekers of truth should never be accosted with vitriol or condescension; there is a difference between those who unwittingly let fall another drop into an ocean of agentless mistreatment and those who manifest overt bigotry. But while contempt for others stymies learning and vilifies decent people, we ought not always dismiss the anger, frustration, and fear that characterize certain views as “irrational.” Those who are not directly affected by the premises of a given argument will likely be in a position to neatly wield the power of abstraction and analysis. But designating markers of “reasonableness” to those who are the least affected by the conversation is dangerous—we ought to aspire for a conception of rationality that takes this into account.
Instead of criticizing students for “thin skin” and suggesting that they toughen up, we should consider what it is liberal education is supposed to do in the first place. It seems that the purpose should be neither to take the teeth out of ideas, nor to make us impervious to their bite. Instead of severing ideas from their significance in our own lives, we should learn to feel the right things the right way. Instead of shielding ourselves against disturbing ideas, we should seek an education where we are taught not only to see the beauty of things beautiful but also the ugliness of things ugly. This kind of education would teach us that in order to think well, we must also learn to feel.
*See The Atlantic essay here.
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