The current public assumption that safe spaces and trigger warnings conflict with academic freedom and are the result of political correctness gone mad is a false dichotomy. If students today are indeed more fragile, then it is vital that we in higher education understand: (1) the specific nature of this sensitivity and (2) what colleges can do to help.
After this divisive election, we will need more capacity for talking about controversial issues. While the anonymity of social media may have escalated invective, it has not made for more ease with difficult conversations. Technology has allowed a generation to end relationships by text message, or even by “ghosting” an ex -- deleting a relationship from your life without any conflict or effort.
Avoiding conflict, of course, also sacrifices an opportunity to learn. Our campuses and world, meanwhile, are increasingly more religiously, culturally and ethnically diverse and now more politically divided. So at the very moment when we have more varied ideas, thoughts and opinions on our campuses, we also have students who are less equipped and perhaps less eager to have challenging discussions.
The U.S. Department of Education recently issued a Dear Colleague letter to college presidents asking that we help students learn to disagree in a “respectful manner.” But what it means to be “disrespected” is highly contested, so we are indeed having difficult conversations about trigger warnings and safe spaces. Ultimately, college is about helping students think critically. That requires learning how to interrogate complexity while withholding judgment and trying to feel safe in precisely those uncomfortable spaces where our ideas and attitudes are being challenged.
But this is a process. The first stage of college is finding a safe home. We learn much more when we explore from a place of safety, have the rights tools and feel accepted as equal partners in the discourse. The news media has greatly exaggerated the very few students who want “protection” from ideas they find uncomfortable. Safe spaces are mostly simply places of congregation, and assembly with other people who share your ideas, history and culture is a basic human impulse. With a safe home base established, we can then encourage students to venture into discussions in which they may have greater discomfort.
Pedagogy is about moving from comfort to discomfort and eventually finding comfort in discomfort. The measure of a college, then, has nothing to do with the sensitivity of its first-year students or if their professors use trigger warnings, but rather with the outcomes. Can we teach students to embrace ambiguity and discomfort? And, if so, how?
A Path Forward
First, colleges must assemble a diverse community of learners. Employers say they want graduates who can solve complex problems with people who are not like them. This year, for example, the first-year class at Goucher College is 35 percent students of color and 25 percent Pell-eligible students. We also have students from 60 countries on our campus, and we require 100 percent of our undergraduates to study abroad, as travel can be a great way to encounter differences and discover that not everyone speaks or thinks as you do.
But bringing diverse students together is just the beginning. To have open, meaningful and difficult conversations, young people also need to learn to live with a higher tolerance for ambiguity -- or “the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as desirable.” It is essential for democracy, and it is being used in research on global leadership because it is related to cross-cultural communication and performance in diverse work environments. At Goucher College, we use a Tolerance for Ambiguity scale that asks students to respond to statements like:
An expert who doesn’t come up with a definite answer probably doesn’t know too much.
A good teacher is one who makes you wonder about your way of looking at things.
The sooner we all acquire similar values and ideals the better.
We are using that tool and other existing psychological constructs to measure where our students are when they first arrive on our campus in terms of dealing with ambiguity, and then we follow up every year to see if and when they have progressed. All of this is confidential and analyzed by researchers only in the aggregate. We will, however, look for patterns and connect trends with pedagogy and activities. (Are juniors willing to take more cognitive risk? Did our required study abroad experience increase cultural sensitivity?)
This work is at an early stage, but our hope is that we will come to understand better how college and various interventions can have an impact. We have begun by actively doing everything we can as college administrators and faculty members to demonstrate that there are multiple good answers, that knowledge is complex and that we can change our minds.
We must also be intellectual and ethical role models, so on our campus, we are responsive and transparent about student concerns. We routinely engage students in open meetings and alter policy as a result of their input. It is certainly more work, but it has the dual benefit of building community while modeling that smart people have open minds.
We must also create a campus culture that invites and supports the most difficult conversations. On a night of unrest in Baltimore, I joined a spontaneous gathering of dozens of faculty members and students watching the news. Late into the night, students continued to share their responses, fears, anxieties, hurts and pains. It was profoundly uncomfortable -- and we all learned. In the weeks that followed, we decided we need to be even more uncomfortable, and a group of faculty members created a seven-week seminar, Back to School on Race. More than 150 faculty and staff members signed up and participated -- and we all learned more about the deep structures of racial inequity as seen through the lenses of multiple disciplines, as well as the ongoing pain and discomfort that such topics bring to many members of our own community. This became a springboard to further conversations about curriculum, pedagogy, support and campus culture.
Thus, to help our students embrace discomfort, we must first establish a home for them. Later we encourage them to encounter discomfort, allow them the time to reintegrate that new information and then send them back out to embrace more discomfort.
Next fall, we will also introduce a new curriculum that begins with a first-year seminar designed to welcome students to the world of inquiry through faculty members who model their own passionate exploration of a topic of their choosing, with the focus more on how faculty are thinking about their topic rather than what they are thinking. Students will then take three exploration courses that are based in our new interdisciplinary academic centers. Over four years, and not in a single course, students will also need to demonstrate that they are racially and culturally literate.
We encapsulate all these efforts in our new version of the three R’s of learning: relationships, resilience and reflection. We start by getting to know our students. We emphasize to them the importance of building relationships that will prepare them for more discomfort. We focus on resilience (and also measure this in our students) because we have found that, in general, those who see failure as an opportunity learn more, grow personally and succeed professionally. Conflict and failure allow us to test boundaries and open us up to new ideas and new perspectives.
Reflection is what ties it all together and feeds our compassion and social conscience, so we will soon require all graduating students to develop a reflection portfolio. Recognizing there are a multiplicity of accents, experiences, histories and values living all around us is a first step, but we must then also reconsider our own values, frameworks and prejudices, and then confront our differences honestly.
Technology and globalization have increased our exposure to difference, but that alone has not opened hearts and minds. The internet offers us increasing access to new ideas and knowledge, and most of what students will need to know for the jobs of the future, they will need to learn as they go along after they graduate. That means that colleges should focus less on making sure we cover the content and more on teaching students how to become self-regulated learners. New knowledge is only really useful if you know how to let it in and allow it to change your mind. We need to rethink the pedagogical processes by which we get students to truly embrace difference.
Without critical thinking, discernment and reflection, democracy retreats from the sound of the loudest voice. The value of the liberal arts will only increase as knowledge and ideas proliferate. We need graduates who are not only capable of difficult conversations but also eager to listen and reflect. Perhaps we should restrict degrees to those who realize the answer to most difficult questions is almost always “It depends.”
José Antonio Bowen is president of Goucher College.
It was a debate moment that historians will surely return to -- like Richard Nixon’s sweaty brow and George H. W. Bush’s impatient glance at his watch. When Donald Trump lost composure and interjected “such a nasty woman” (twice), the game was over. Respect for women? Please.
From mocking disabled people to stigmatizing immigrants to encouraging violence against one’s enemies, the Trump campaign has indulged in a startling variety of transgressions of normal political discourse. The Clinton campaign’s counterpoint “when they go low, we go high,” suggested by the extraordinarily popular first lady, seems to be more about political advantage than moral elevation.
Few people seem to be turning to college campuses lately for moral elevation. Videos go viral of undergraduates screaming their demand for a peaceful home, while deans make a virtue of their commitment to academic freedom by undermining their faculty’s ability to prepare students for disturbing content. Absolutist rhetoric circulates easily at our universities when they should be cultivating subtle analysis and nuanced interpretation.
Some have pointed out that coarse political discourse goes way back in American history and that Trump is following in the footsteps of other titans of transgression. Politicians have said the darnedest things for a long time, we are told, and the Trump campaign’s invective is not actually as unusual as today’s oversensitive onlookers like to claim. The same might be said of our campuses, which have long been hotbeds of contention.
Back in the 1970s there was a Saturday Night Live routine, “Point/Counterpoint,” in which Dan Aykroyd would turn to fellow commentator Jane Curtin and exclaim, “Jane, you ignorant slut.” The funny part of this bit was that it was hard to imagine anyone on a real news show ever saying something like that as a prelude to articulating a disagreement.
Over the last decade, however, we have grown accustomed to the rabid fulminations of talk radio and to cable news pundits cultivating personae of perverse aggressivity. And now we have been treated to the spectacle of political candidates commenting on penis size, assaultive groping and vicious denigrations of the physical appearance of women. Today the Dan Aykroyd line would not be so funny because it would not be so preposterous.
The expectation of excoriation has become a fact of public and academic life -- with consequences in the civic realm. Disagreements -- be they on social media or at the neighborhood watering hole -- can get nasty very quickly. And it’s sticks and stones as well as words. Americans are killing one another at alarming rates in disputes over everything from what to play next on the jukebox to the best car brands. A verbal shot can have an awful counterpoint when somebody has a pistol tucked into his belt -- whether he’s in a bar or a classroom.
Although this growing barbarism is much remarked on in the political realm, when it comes to colleges we hear about a very different kind of concern: political correctness on campus. Somehow, the enforced niceness of PC culture is dangerous because it protects “coddled” millennials from having to challenge their own assumptions. While the rest of the country is engulfed in a dangerous war of words, campuses are accused of caring too much about triggering painful memories and providing safe spaces. This fantasy about PC culture has been weaponized in the current electoral campaign, so that all kinds of assaultive speech (and worse) are celebrated as evidence that candidates aren’t caving in to political correctness.
When you spend time on college campuses, however, you find plenty of debate that is actually substantive -- about the role of systemic racism in our institutions, about the possibilities for meaningful work after graduation, about the struggle for transparency in our public institutions. Transparency in particular is a key value for many students across the country, and this often leads to controversy because privacy is also a value they cherish.
That said, undergraduates today are often repulsed by official politics, and they are too likely to be cynical about the possibilities for building responsive institutions that can support the most vulnerable or empower the most innovative. It’s been observed that they are no longer inspired by abstract calls for “free speech” or by warm and fuzzy talk about “diversity and inclusion.” No wonder nihilism seems to be making a comeback among those who want to show how sophisticated their suspiciousness has become. If you’re really smart, the thinking seems to be, you won’t believe in anything that promotes possibilities for change. “We won’t get fooled again!” is the defensive cry of those afraid of being disappointed if they seek to engage with anything beyond themselves and their immediate peer group. Disillusionment is harder to mock than idealism and is in great supply on our college campuses.
It’s less risky to undercut an opponent’s stand than to take a stand of one’s own, and mocking the commitments of others from a distance is the safest route of all. Proposing practical programmatic change in areas like refugee resettlement, mass incarceration, the minimum wage or gender equality may indeed lead to social media storms of abuse from the alt-right or from a holier-than-thou left. That doesn’t make the proposals bad or good, but it does make it easier to propose nothing at all.
What’s most worrisome about the normalized nastiness is that it will surely discourage even more people from participating in public life, regardless of political persuasion. Nobody likes being called a racist, a loser, a fascist or even a neoliberal. And nobody enjoys being the object of mockery that is eminently retweetable.
The solution isn’t censorship or pious calls for more civility. Nor is the solution “rising above it all” to a “know-it-all position” that is smugly pessimistic because it is “all so smart.” The solution is to keep engaging on issues and proposing ideas that address real problems with full knowledge that one will be attacked for doing so. Fear of attack is no excuse for the failure to take a stand.
We must not abandon the public sphere to those who have successfully polluted it. It has always taken courage to take a public stand, and courage is still the best counter to nastiness.
Submitted by Tom Kalil on October 24, 2016 - 3:00am
Students in Society
Imagine a world in which clean energy is cheaper than coal, safe drinking water is accessible and affordable to everyone on the planet, and no child goes to bed hungry. Imagine a world where we have vaccines for AIDS, TB and malaria, and effective treatments for cancer and Alzheimer’s. Imagine a society where everyone has anytime, anywhere access to the highest-quality learning opportunities. Imagine a future in which astronauts venture out into the solar system, not just to visit but to stay.
These and other similarly ambitious goals are within reach -- particularly if we inspire and empower the next generation of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and civic leaders to imagine and embrace them. Today’s change makers have access to knowledge and resources that would have been unimaginable 20 to 30 years ago, such as access to virtually unlimited computing resources and the ability to use online platforms to crowdsource funding and expertise from around the world. How can our educational institutions offer the learning opportunities that will inspire these change makers?
One of the scholars that President Obama met with was Michaela Rikard, a biomedical engineering student at North Carolina State University. She’s interested in developing new medical therapies that are personalized, affordable and readily available worldwide. She’s already conducted research to use nanotechnology to detect and treat cancer, and has worked with the military to help soldiers suffering from amputation complications.
This interest in Grand Challenges is not limited to the STEM disciplines. The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has identified 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work to address major societal challenges such as ending homelessness and family violence.
Given the growing interest among colleges and universities in addressing real-world problems, the time is right to identify the elements of an all-hands-on-deck effort to motivate, prepare and empower young people to tackle the grand challenges of the 21st century, at home and abroad. For example:
Colleges and universities could provide students with more opportunities for course work and experiential learning that is focused on problems, drawing on the insights from multiple disciplines. This fall, Stanford University is offering a Hacking for Diplomacy course that allows students to work on global problems such as the Syrian refugee crisis, countering violent extremism and fighting illegal fishing. Many other universities are interested in replicating this course and a similar course called Hacking for Defense. Government agencies can support these efforts by providing funding and identifying important problems.
Colleges and universities could target some of their federal work-study funds to allow students to work on real-world problems that they and their institutions care about. Students could be challenged to write their own job description and find a company or nonprofit organization that would be interested in hosting them.
Researchers and practitioners could collaborate on the design and dissemination of online courses and open educational resources that are problem focused and help students develop and hone some of the skills they will need to be effective change makers in the public or private sectors. For example, the World Bank has created a set of online short courses that help learners understand a particular problem (for example, understanding the impact of climate change in developing countries) or a problem-solving methodology (using public-private partnerships to finance infrastructure or involving citizens in the formulation of public policy).
Foundations and philanthropists could provide scholarships so that these opportunities are available to low-income students and underrepresented minorities.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy would like to hear from you about what your institution is doing to inspire and empower the next generation of change makers. What new actions is it taking to encourage college and university students to solve important real-world problems? What other actions should the public and private sectors take to prepare future change makers? Please share your views at email@example.com.
Tom Kalil is deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Colleges and universities across the country are turning their attention to expanding civic engagement opportunities for students. In part, this growing attention is a result of a renewed focus on the traditional mission of higher education to develop good citizens -- a mission with heightened importance in our current sociopolitical context. It is also a response to a resurgence of student interest in social activism and an expressed commitment among students to make a difference in the world. While these aims are commendable, I question whether those of us who work in higher education have developed the best approaches to achieve them.
An article in Inside Higher Eddescribed the growing emphasis on civic engagement in college curricula “in response to an erosion of public discourse.” The article notes that institutions are working to address what a 2012 Department of Education report termed a “civic recession” by involving students in service projects and experiential learning with the goals of enhancing civic discourse and political engagement and satisfying students’ desire to participate in service to “accomplish something in the world.”
As Alan Solomont of Tufts University states in the article, students need the structure colleges and universities provide, because without that they are uncertain about how to turn their activism into lasting change. I agree, and I’m concerned that we may be missing the opportunity to achieve our goals with students because we are not doing enough to intentionally design a structure that facilitates the desired outcome.
Today’s students will be better prepared and disposed to be good citizens who accomplish lasting change if they are more than involved in civic discourse on trending topics, do more than participate in politics and vote regularly, and experience more than discrete service projects or service learning courses. Those experiences, while important, can and should be framed by larger issues so they become more than self-fulfilling or exotic experiences of helping small numbers of people in need. Lasting change comes with a clear understanding and appreciation that such discrete activities exist in a social context that cannot be changed without systemic reform. We have great potential to make a difference precisely because students are eager to explore their concerns, often through social media, and to express their hopes and expectations through campus demonstrations, sit-ins and petitions. Many are actively engaged.
Yet we know that our current efforts are not working as well as we had hoped. Campus projects to encourage student voting have not succeeded in getting students who turn out in large numbers for presidential elections to vote in the off years, although the issues that drive them to the polls aren’t solved through voting for a single political leader in one election. And students return from service-learning trips and activities elated by the adventure, feeling as if they’ve made a difference and connected with people very different from themselves, but often without the tools to contextualize their experience in the framework of global problems or to stimulate them to continue their deep engagement as citizens.
What can we do to enhance the long-term impact of college and university-sponsored civic engagement activities? We can start by asking, “What for?” and “What are we doing to point intentionally toward the purpose implied in that first question?” If we are clear about the purpose and context for these efforts and systemic in our framing and design, our students are far more likely to develop lifelong civic responsibility for bringing about lasting, systemic change.
Identify the fundamental issue. We should encourage the explicit design of civic engagement projects, whether local or global, around major issues. Such design entails framing activities not simply as work in a food pantry but also as work to diminish food insecurity and malnutrition, not simply as helping build schools but also as addressing the issue of educational inequities, not simply as establishing a pro bono community clinic but also as providing equitable access to health care. In short, we have to broaden the focus from applying learning in the real world and what the student gains in this hands-on process to include an explicit focus on the larger societal problem the student is working to solve.
Understand the issue in its broader context. We will not successfully resolve hunger with a food drive or a service-learning trip, because hunger is a complex problem that is systemically entwined with other social and economic issues. To be effective in tackling societal issues, we have to understand them deeply and broadly enough to know what needs to change. Colleges and university are well positioned to teach students about issues like hunger as enduring, complex systemic problems. Institutions that already take that approach know that the academic component of civic engagement activities is central to making sure these activities are understood as more than discrete projects. Students should learn about the issue and the community in depth before engaging in service projects so they are not just there as helpers or partners but can also envision their work as an effort to address a larger problem and appreciate their potential efficacy in addressing it.
A postexperience follow-up that circles back to the pre-experience academic study is also important in linking the civic engagement activity to the larger problem, why it is so entrenched and how to address it systemically. Perhaps ideally, students could begin to study major local and global problems in depth in their first year through a problem-themed general education program that would lay the groundwork for a deeper and broader understanding of civic engagement work from the start of their undergraduate experience.
Support faculty work across disciplines. As the notion of a problem-themed general education program suggests, the issues we are trying to address through civic engagement projects are complex and nuanced and cannot be fully understood or effectively tackled from any single disciplinary perspective. For example, environmental sustainability is best considered from the multifaceted perspectives of science, law, business, sociology, communications and engineering, to name a few key disciplines. To help our students frame their activity, we must support our faculty’s interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship and ensure that our institutions value this work in personnel decisions like reappointment, promotion and tenure.
Develop leaders. An important component of solving complex problems is leadership. If we want students to develop a civic engagement stance that has an impact on major problems, we must also foster their acquisition of tools and dispositions to make a difference with the knowledge and experience they have gained through civic engagement activities. We should guide them to discover their own leadership skills, to explore ethical and servant leadership concepts (leading with a singular focus on empowering others and addressing others’ needs), and to understand the power of quiet leaders, those without formal leadership positions who lead by example in their daily actions and decisions. Students must develop a personal sense of leadership and responsibility to be leaders in their own lives. At my institution, Widener University, the Oskin Leadership Institute offers all students a leadership certificate and an interdisciplinary leadership minor. Connecting service activities with leadership development is important to developing a lifelong commitment to civic engagement.
Strive for lifetime impact. The ultimate goal should be that our students will be poised for a lifetime of engagement in civic participation to solve local and global problems. Regardless of their career paths, students who have the tools to lead and who have learned to understand and think about their civic engagement activities in the framework of larger problems -- who understand what those activities are for beyond their own discrete experience -- will be better able to achieve the outcomes we all hope for: accomplishing something significant by making a difference in the world.
Julie E. Wollman is president of Widener University.
David Horowitz's campaign -- posters with names of students and professors backing Israel boycott -- condemned as intimidation and leads to students blocking car carrying president of San Diego State U.
The Emory University community awoke on March 21 to “Trump 2016” and related messages chalked on walkways, stairways, building walls and other places across our campus. Anti-Trump protests followed. Free and open expression is strongly encouraged at Emory, so the chalked endorsements normally would not cause anyone to blink an eye. But, in this case, a particular set of circumstances created a flash point.
News media coverage and even our own campus dialogues have largely essentialized this incident into the right to free speech versus the need for students to be more resilient in coping with an often harsh world. Some argue for the primacy of open expression at any cost, while others insist on the right to feel safe and unthreatened by certain expressions of free speech. In fact, the issues are much more complex, especially with the incident at Emory.
Although the phrase “Trump 2016” in and of itself may seem innocuous to many, in the context of the important work happening on our campus to ensure that every student experiences a sense of belonging, the recent chalkings spurred students to enunciate their claim to an institution in which they can feel like invited guests. Emory students from many backgrounds work hard to make our community better for all by raising our social and political consciousness around the many pressing issues of social justice.
First, protest movements are encouraged and are alive and well on university campuses. Although we have much work ahead at Emory, we have made significant progress by coming together as a university community to address last fall’s demands by the Black Students at Emory movement. Having identified shared concerns, values and passions, we are now positioned to create a more racially just campus community.
Second, some of the chalkings on Emory’s campus were a violation of university policies, certainly not because of the content, but because the chalkings were done in unacceptable locations and without reserving the space. Our guidelines concerning public messaging are crucial to maintaining open expression.
Third, many students who are members of marginalized groups have encountered intolerance much of their lives. These lived experiences inform their campus activism. At Emory, like many other institutions, students have been subjected to bias incidents based on various aspects of their identities, including race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and political views. Such acts -- both overt and subtle -- take a profound toll on students on campuses that they genuinely want to embrace as home and haven.
Many of the same students find themselves serving in leadership roles and contributing their labor to improve our campus social climate, all the while continuing to manage rigorous academic demands.
It is no secret that many people -- across the political spectrum -- have expressed concern that some elements of this year’s presidential campaigns are offensive and prey on public anxieties about America’s changing demographics. The controversial and often vitriolic nature of current political discourse is clearly painful for many people and especially difficult for groups that historically have been marginalized -- groups that include many Emory students.
The intensity, timing and anonymity of the “Trump 2016” chalking incident produced a tipping point. In the context of a college campus, we thrive on open and civil dialogue, inviting even the most controversial perspectives and remarks. The college setting is a laboratory where students may, for the first time, grapple with such issues. Those conversations by their very nature can be difficult and must take place in a safe environment that is inclusive and guided by mutual respect and civility.
Demeaning language and personal threats are counterproductive and undercut the arguments that prioritize open expression, as well as those that call for a more sensitive community.
It is unequivocally wrong to suggest that students who support the Trump 2016 campaign should not have a right to express their support. Similarly, students opposed to the campaign have the right to express their views on what Trump 2016 means to them. One of our fundamental responsibilities as educators is to encourage respectful student activism across the array of complex public issues that challenge our nation and the world.
We must continue to work together at Emory and throughout our society to cultivate an environment in which we respect one another’s views and honor our collective right to express those views -- a community of practice in which discourse in the public square is as civil as it is robust.
Ajay Nair is senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory University.