it’s my job to take college students seriously

So here’s a thing that’s happening at Yale. I stress: it’s really happening. It’s not a conservative media invention. It’s verified. Yale students are calling for the resignation or firing of Erika Christakis,  Associate Master of Silliman College, and her husband, Master of Silliman College Nicholas Christakis, over an email about potentially offensive Halloween costumes. Here is what has so inflamed Yale undergraduates:

“I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.

Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”

That’s sufficient to get people screaming for your firing, nowadays. Note that what Christiakis is talking about — students becoming complicit in the hierarchies of the neoliberal university by constantly invoking the power of administrators — is precisely what I was warning about in my New York Times Magazine piece… and that the students have responded by epitomizing that tendency.

As I’ve said before, there’s a confusing and frustrating divide on these issues for me. One part of my life, the part that engages with the broader political conversation, is filled with well-meaning liberal and left people who say “oh, there’s no illiberal attitudes among college students — that’s all a conspiracy by the conservative media.” These people, generally, are not on campus. Meanwhile, my extensive connections in the academy, and my continuing friendships with many people who are involved in the world of campus organizing, report that this tendency is true — and often justify it, arguing that this illiberalism is in fact a necessary aspect of achieving social justice. It’s disorienting and frustrating to get arguments of denial in one part of my life and arguments of justification in another.

Even worse, though, is a common response I hear: OK, yes, there are college students who display illiberal attitudes and aren’t very committed to free speech. But they’re just college students, and they’ll grow out of it, and who cares what a bunch of 19 year olds think, anyway? I find this very frustrating as well. Teaching college students is the only job I’ve ever really wanted. It’s uncool to talk about having a calling, but I have one, and it’s to be a college educator. And that means that it’s my job to take college students seriously. To take their intellectual and political commitments seriously. I would be abdicating my responsibility to them if I just dismissed these passionate political protests as a fad, a transitory phase that they’ll get over someday. I’m not sure that’s true. But even if it is true, right now, these young people are filled with a profound sense of moral and political responsibility. My own life was enriched by college educators who took my intellectual and political commitments seriously, who never treated them as juvenile, temporary, or unimportant. I can’t fail to provide students with the same respect today.

There’s been a steady drumbeat of these stories lately. (See, for example, this effort to ban the film Stonewall from campus at Colorado College.) It’s time to stop pretending that these are isolated, random incidents. We can debate what’s healthy and what’s not, what’s liberal and what’s not, what “safety” should mean on campus and what it shouldn’t. But before we do anything else, we have to be willing to say that something is happening, and that it’s not some figment of the conservative imagination.