Do you want to be a student at the lobotomized university?

Trigger warnings and campus safety, in another part of the world.

June 24, 2015

This is a provocative question for a post that has at its heart the desire to stir a response from the informed readers of this blog. The recent debate about trigger warnings and campus safety that originated in the United States has now reached the shores of Scandinavian academia. The Internet is full of anecdotal evidence on how students have made demands on the university administration and on the faculty to protect them from exposure to materials considered disturbing. The argument I sketch here is simple: I believe that the universities are spaces for freedom of thought, without which creativity and innovation cannot exist.

For those unfamiliar with the triggers debate, there are several articles that illuminate the dilemma between safety and freedom that campus administrators and university staff are faced with. In a nutshell, the current situation is as such: some students and student associations have redefined safety in a way that includes not only protection from physical harm but also freedom from psychological distress. In the name of this redefined safety demand, changes in the curriculum have been made and campus activities have been combed for politically disturbing or provocative elements.

I come to the debate from a theoretical standpoint and ask what are universities for? From the point of view of the students demanding forewarning, universities appear to be factories for delivering diplomas. The point of attending courses, getting good grades and finally a diploma is to further one’s career goals, with content secondary to form. In the opinion of some idealistic academics, universities are not diploma delivery devices. Universities are spaces of learning and creativity, of thinking outside the box, of problematizing and questioning existing norms. In short, spaces of freedom of thought. Impinging on this academic freedom is synonymous to lobotomizing the brain – the basic survival functions may still be performed but the patient has lost her/his ability to reason. Who wants to be a student at the lobotomized university?

Universities are (and, from my normative perspective, must remain) safe spaces for free thought. In dictatorships, historical and contemporary, universities have traditionally been places of dissidence and resistance. When the authoritarian regime of communist Poland forbade the discussion of certain “sensitive” (aka critical to the government) subjects, intellectuals organized the so-called “flying universities”. Hosted in scholars’ private homes, permanently changing addresses to avoid being arrested by the police, these underground meetings provided an opportunity for Polish students to read forbidden texts and to have free discussion about subjects the government tried to hush. In today’s Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe, university curriculum is censored. This is why an alternative higher education institution, the European Humanities University, located in the neighboring country Lithuania, functions in exile as an alternative space of learning. It is enough to look on the homepage of the organization Scholars at Risk to see how many academics are living under threat for the sake of their right to think freely. And now, in the democratic West, should we reproduce these authoritarian practices of censorship by placing cautionary warnings on our syllabi, not forced by governments but out of our own free will?

If we succumb to the demands of (self) censorship, we run the risk of turning into cyclops. As author Karl Ove Knausgaard writes in a critique of the conformist Swedish intellectual life, “[t]he cyclops do not want to be aware of the parts of reality that don’t accord with how they believe it should be.”

In a world where we live in ‘filter bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers’ of partial information, there is a pressing need to take in and discuss a variety of information.  The history of humanity is ridden with disquieting events: wars, slavery, cannibalism, the Holocaust. Art is disturbing too: the monsters of Hieronymus Bosch and Goya are not a pleasant sight. Literature and film abound in examples that provoke and unsettle. All this may be disturbing, yes. But the risk of looking at the world through a cyclops’s one-eyed perspective is even more disturbing.



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