Ed West

A course in Dangerous Ideas would be the perfect tonic for our dull universities

A course in Dangerous Ideas would be the perfect tonic for our dull universities
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There have been a number of articles recently by American liberals warning about the intolerance of academia, in particular pointing to the dangers of a generation who’ve never had their views challenged.

The latest is by an academic using the pseudonym Edward Schlosser, who writes in Vox last week:

Things have changed since I started teaching. The vibe is different. I wish there were a less blunt way to put this, but my students sometimes scare me — particularly the liberal ones.

I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to 'offensive' texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students' ire and sealed his fate. That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik — and I wasn't the only one who made adjustments, either.

‘Schlosser’ referenced a couple of examples where he thought identity politics was damaging academia, and the response was as sensible as one would imagine: He’s a racist. This is harassment. He should be fired.

As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, 'Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.' Hurting a student's feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.

You might think this something that doesn’t affect you, but when American academia sneezes, the rest of the English-speaking world catches flu. After all, American universities are the home of political correctness, a sort of fusion of latter day Yankee Puritanism and European Marxism.

During the 1970s and 1980s, lots of academics were harassed for suggesting ideas that would now be considered politically incorrect and which supposedly insulted one or other minorities. Then in the late 1980s came the high point of first generation PC.

Perhaps what’s different now is that the current generation have been raised in a culture that is heavily politically correct, and will have met little in the way of contradicting theories in their lives; their parents might also know fewer people from different sides of the political divide than their parents did. It’s also true that most of the more politically incorrect academics these days tend to be old, which perhaps suggests that for the younger generation people with such heretical ideas about the world don’t go into the profession.

Furthermore, and this is where the economic right and cultural left meet, the younger generation have grown up as consumers, and see education (which most students in the English-speaking world now pay for) as just another consumer choice; if the professor upsets me with an offensive idea, then he must be in the wrong. The result is the current atmosphere: students are now warned about subjects that might trigger them, and compete on blogs and social media for points in suffering 'microaggressions'.

But surely, in a free market, there must be consumer demand for a college course that especially offers dangerous, disconfirming ideas? For a parallel take the world of fitness, and the sharpening of body rather than mind; while many people want something gentle or moderately strenuous in their exercise classes, there is also a huge market for people wishing to push the limits. Look at the popularity of things like Tough Mudder, where it’s the physical ordeal that attracts people. Equally in the world of learning, I imagine some people would be attracted to a course that promised them Dangerous Ideas, in literature, science, philosophy and politics?

As long as a theory is rigorously tested, then there should be no limits to what is studied or posited. In such an institution anyone wishing to denounce an idea with a crime-thought accusation – racist, sexist, homophobic – would have to prove such ideas were motivated by an irrational and overwhelming prejudice, and argue why their moral worldview was a priori the correct one. A fact is either correct or false; whether it is offensive or not and What It Means To You As A Member of this Blah Blah Community is irrelevant.

Of course students would have to sign a waiver, but like those forms they give you on physical courses explaining ‘in the occurrence of serious injury or death’, that would probably be an attraction.