A half-century ago, I remember well my brothers coming home from college on summer break. Frisky with new experiences and holding new ideas planted by professors intent on stretching their intellectual imaginations, they sat around the dinner table ready to take on dear old dad in hour-long debates. I actually enjoyed the back and forth particular when it got a bit heated. I learned that the world was full of ideas and opinions and that when one’s head is not concerned with finishing a task at hand, it was ok to ponder some of life’s biggest questions. A fifteen-year-old has mostly questions.
All the back and forth, point and counterpoint, gotcha questions, and snarky retorts, there was always respect in the discussions. When able to enjoy these types of discussions with my own children, I came to understand why my father appeared to enjoy it so. It is when you see your children handle well the intellectual challenges that school prepared them for, do you fully appreciate the value of education. It was not the agreement or conformity I valued, but the ability to think and to do so independently.
It is against this experience that so intrigued me when I learned about ‘safe-rooms’ at today’s colleges. I read stories of how frightened young college kids demanded ‘safe- rooms’ complete with cuddly pillows, microwavable mac-n-cheese, and purring cats to protect them from viewpoints they deemed so vile, they would literally grow anxious or suffer some other form of emotional trauma. Taking cues laced with the promise of good grades from their mostly leftist progressive professors, they coined the term ‘micro and macroaggressions.’ Like a playroom fort, they hid from ideas and perspectives their ‘thought leaders’ insisted were distasteful and counter to the orthodox young heads must absorb. With so many theories to learn, one must not become distracted by a collage of ideas.
For many of my fellow boomers, demanding protection from the marketplace of ideas and opinions is a startling notion. Raising our little Johnnies and Suzie’s to college age, we thought them ready to take on the world, eager to learn and experience life beyond the shelter of their upbringing. Little did we think, considering the many thousands of dollars going towards an education, that listening to someone with less than progressive ideas would require our children to seek the safety of a ‘safe place’ room.
There is story after story of learned experts in nearly every field of inquiry being disallowed from our college campuses because they possessed a viewpoint contrary to either the faculty or the administration or a few radicalized students. By osmosis, our kids learned to sniff out the pungent smell of old rotting ideas such as capitalism or free speech or the historical significance of Thomas Jefferson or controversial positions on climate change. A scientist, even one who believes in man-caused anthropogenic warming but not that it represents an existential threat, will trigger the professors to round up the sensitive children into the ‘safe-room’ to protect them from such a radical position. It must have been a macroaggression because the professor claimed a connection between climate warming and racial equity using some convoluted circular logic. The professor lecturing with well-honed academic-speak delivered with the cadence of a TV preacher suggesting great certainty had all the youngsters shaking their head in unison. Apparently, conformity is what they seek.
Is it any wonder that if a discussion on global warming breaks out at the dining room table, a child or two will excuse themselves to sit in another room to avoid the conversation? Not today. Our finest universities have taught the kids not to engage but rather seek emotional comfort in a safe place. Looking for comfort, they find their tribe on social media and tell of what an ignorant rube Uncle Fred is.
But something happened on the way to the bonfire downtown. Given an opportunity to ignore the mayoral mandated pandemic ‘lock-down’ order and ginned up by an incriminating image of a dying Mr. Floyd, many of these same ‘safe-space’ kids suddenly found their voice. They didn’t want a discussion but rather to offer a lecture complete with a bit of theatrics. With bullhorns, they proceeded to bully police officers and anyone else against the back drop of plate glass breaking, looting, and the burning of buildings and cop cars. So certain of their moral indignation and newly adopted theories on race, these bullies insist that you not only just listen, but you join them. Why? Because they’re better educated and morally superior to Uncle Fred. Reminiscent of 17th century Puritanism, you either agree with these college-educated bullies and quietly accept the obscenity ladened lectures or be shunned (shun is what the Puritans did to those who would not conform. ‘Cancel’ is the new word. It is what the progressive woke do to those who do not conform).
Of course, to actually attend the bonfire, one best put on shoes so as to not cut your toes on the glass shards, and sport an appropriate sign. Not everyone wanted to go through that much work and instead decided to stay warm and cozy and safe from the virus in their pajamas. Woke and rhetorically armed, they ply the ethers of the digital sphere using the multiple bullhorns of social media. Safely on the side of progressive politics, they need not worry about having posts removed or being de-platformed as have numerous doctors and scientists who had the temerity to suggest a perspective opposed by those who hold the ‘one and only true’ orthodoxy.
So how did we arrive at this point in history where so many appear so eager to yell and spit their dogma as if that was the purpose of their college education?
The idea of college ‘safe-rooms’ may have had its genesis in good intentions. Tears that are the result of emotional fragility can evoke a strong sense of protectionism by school administrators. Unfortunately, I believe it sent a signal that when ideas, opinions, and perspectives provoke a strong emotional response, one is to confirm those feelings and seek refuge, thereby avoiding a discussion. It is also permissible to take offense with the perspectives and opinions of others and to hold them in contempt- shunning them if necessary. In fact, if feeling particularly courageous, go ahead and shout down those with differing views. That is what bullies do.
Universities should be a bastion of diversity- a robust marketplace of ideas. They should return those ‘safe-rooms’ back to classrooms and encourage our children and grandchildren to go boldly into that brave world not because there is nothing to fear, but because it is precisely that fear that must be vanquished. When we can again sit at the table of civilized discourse, can we know that civilization will survive. Anything less and we risk sowing the seeds of totalitarianism where every tolerance suggest a weakness.
A century ago, Marxist bullies in Russia set that nation on a course that saw between 20 and 40 million citizens either put to death or die from starvation. Your professor may attempt to convince you that it was not a pure application of Marxist dogma, therefore not a fair condemnation of the political theory. Don’t believe every professor.