The (academic) World of Pain

A spectacle is currently unfolding on university campuses across the nation: college students are marching, organizing sit-ins, promising boycotts of academic and sporting events, brandishing placards and harassing the staff. What truth are they attempting to ‘speak to power’? Topically, it’s about the idea that free speech may go so far as to cover ‘inappropriate’ Halloween costumes, but that’s only the surface. No, the greater point of the protest is that college is no place for an intellectual discussion.

It’s unacceptable when the Master of your college is dismissive of your experiences. The Silliman Master’s role is not only to provide intellectual stimulation, but also to make Silliman a safe space that all students can come home to. His responsibility is to make it a place where your experiences are a valid concern to the administration and where you can feel free to talk with them about your pain without worrying that the conversation will turn into an argument every single time. We are supposed to feel encouraged to go to our Master and Associate Master with our concerns and feel that our opinions will be respected and heard.

But, in his ten weeks as a leader of the college, Master Christakis has not fostered this sense of community. He seems to lack the ability, quite frankly, to put aside his opinions long enough to listen to the very real hurt that the community feels. He doesn’t get it. And I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.

Emphasis mine. The above quote is from an article that ran in The Yale Daily Herald. Or rather, I should say, was from that student paper: the article has been withdrawn at the request of the author, Jencey Paz, a Yale student. Ponder that for a moment: an article cited (critically, to be fair) all over the web is simply removed. Put aside any accusation of intellectual cowardice, what person working on the web today imagines you can just erase a controversial article?

Apparently, the Yale man…

Pain. That’s the key to this discussion, and the use of pain and therapeutic language is no accident: in an excellent article at The Atlantic, Greg Lukainoff and Jonathan Haidt use the term “vindictive protectiveness” to describe the pathological mode of thought that has overtaken the academy at this moment. But it is by no means limited to the academy (thought it is most pronounced there). Writing at National Review about a month ago David French discussed the case of  a lesbian couple and their 5 year old child. The couple wanted their child to attend a private, explicitly Christian school, and when the school averred, citing the fairly well known disfavor traditional Christianity has for same sex couples. This simply will not do, so let us take a look at how an attorney described the potential harm to a child not being admitted to a Christian school;

“Now the question is where do you draw the line?” [the attorney] asked. “If you have a religion that believed in human sacrifice or amputation of the arm or the hand for theft, would we permit that in the interest of permitting the free practice of one’s religion? I don’t think so, and one could argue that psychologically… this is as devastating to the little 5-year-old girl as some of those other vicious practices.”

Got that? A Christian school’s refusal to admit a child (from a family engaging in flouting the school’s tenants) is arguably as psychologically devastating as “human sacrifice” or amputating hands for theft. With that in mind it scarcely should be surprising that the campus police at University of Missouri are requesting you call the police if you view examples of hateful and/or hurtful speech.

The pathological mode is increasingly gaining ground at law schools as well. The laws that govern rape are some of the most complicated and nuanced areas of criminal law, and last year in the New Yorker Professor Jeannie Suk wrote about the difficulty in teaching this uniquely complicated subject at Harvard Law;

When I teach rape law, I don’t dwell on cases in which everyone will agree that the defendant is guilty. Instead, I focus on cases that test the limits of the rules, and that fall near the rapidly shifting line separating criminal conduct from legal sex. These cases involve people who previously knew each other and who perhaps even previously had sex. They cover situations in which the meaning of each party’s actions, signals, and desires may have been ambiguous to the other, or misapprehended by one or both sides. We ask questions like: How should consent or non-consent be communicated? Should it matter whether the accused realized that the complainant felt coerced? What information about the accused and the complainant is relevant to whether or not they should be believed? How does social inequality inform how we evaluate whether a particular incident was a crime? I often assign students roles in which they have to argue a side—defense or prosecution—with which they might disagree.

Though “[t]hese pedagogical tactics are common to almost every law-school topic and classroom,” instructors are encountering ever increasing push back from students: “asking students to challenge each other in discussions of rape law has become so difficult that teachers are starting to give up on the subject” to the extent that “a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students.”  Tellingly, the complaints focus on the pathological language once more, the lingua franca of such arguments;

Some students complained that I should have given them a “trigger warning” beforehand… For at least some students, the classroom has become a potentially traumatic environment, and they have begun to anticipate the emotional injuries they could suffer or inflict in classroom conversation. They are also more inclined to insist that teachers protect them from causing or experiencing discomfort—and teachers, in turn, are more willing to oblige, because it would be considered injurious for them not to acknowledge a student’s trauma or potential trauma.

By way of contrast, I currently am enrolled in a course through the Jewish Learning Institute. Titled “Journey of the Soul: An Exploration of Life, Death, and What Lies Beyond” I’ve just learned that the course (being conducted in Chabad institutions across the country) has an enrollment of over twenty-two thousand participants. Given that the old saying claims two Jews will produce three opinions, that’s plenty of room for offense to be taken, especially on weighty matters such as life after death, the nature of the immortal soul (and the nature of that immortality) and other matters that are both intensely personal and highly charged.

It’s a challenging exploration and a great privilege to study under a Rabbi who, while tactful, must travel treacherous waters. Not for the students alone, either: at Yale the thought of a badly done trick-treat outfit leaves a Yale student “not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns”, as the now withdrawn article above put it. Imagine then being an instructor and speaking candidly about your grandparents, murdered by the Nazis, their bodies desecrated in a direct violation of every tenant of Jewish law.

Yet for all that the Rabbi has imparted a lesson during the class that has nothing to do with the specific topic per se, but everything to do with learning: that when a topic is difficult, when it is something that you struggle to grasp, those topics are the most valuable when mastered. The students at Yale and Missouri turn this idea on its head, regarding those most challenging ideas and subjects as the ideas and topics least worthy of grappling with. It is a vision of the University not as a place for personal growth and exploration (after all, exploration, by definition, requires stepping outside of the familiar), but the University as a Safe Room writ large, complete with puppies and a barred door to keep any uncomfortable or challenging ideas at bay.

In the end, while there are less charitable interpretations, it’s very difficult to disagree with the conclusion Robby Soave at Reason comes to;

It’s clear that many of today’s students—at Yale, Missouri, and other campuses—don’t value free expression the way their radical predecessors did. But the Yale and Missouri incidents reveal something even more startling: they don’t value their own independence, either. Their goal is to re-enshrine in loco parentis. They want their administrators-in-chief to hold them while they cry, pat them on the back, and softly whisper into their ears, “you’re right, I’m so sorry.”

Will these same students, complain, I wonder, if their administrators start sending troublemakers to bed without supper, or preventing them from hanging out with their friends until they finish their homework? Keep in mind that prior to the ‘60s, administrators placed broad restrictions on students’ rights to socialize, organize, and speak. That’s what parents do, it’s what used to take place on college campuses, and it’s what awaits these students who are suddenly so desperate to be treated like children again.