Wednesday 9 November 2016

Academic self-censorship

I really don't like the stories coming out of parts of the American Academy. 

Here's Erika Christakis, who left Yale after students got upset about her email suggesting that people be less inclined to take offence at Halloween costumes:
Many at Yale maintain that my email prompted widespread and civil conversation, and that the ensuing controversy was just a matter of competing expressions of free speech. I aired an unpopular opinion, which was answered by an equally legitimate response.

But these sanguine claims crumble on examination. The community’s response seemed, to many outside the Yale bubble, a baffling overreaction. Nearly a thousand students, faculty and deans called for my and my husband’s immediate removal from our jobs and campus home. Some demanded not only apologies for any unintended racial insensitivity (which we gladly offered) but also a complete disavowal of my ideas (which we did not) — as well as advance warning of my appearances in the dining hall so that students accusing me of fostering violence wouldn’t be disturbed by the sight of me.
It isn't just the students:
One professor I admire claimed my lone email was so threatening that it unraveled decades of her work supporting students of color. One email. In this unhealthy climate, of which I’ve detailed only a fraction of the episodes, it’s unsurprising that our own attempts at emotional repair fell flat.
And the consequence?
The irony is that this culture of protection may ultimately harm those it purports to protect. The Yale imbroglio became a merciless punchline, leaving no one unscathed, because the lack of a candid internal reckoning emboldened partisan outsiders to hijack the story. In reality, these debates don’t fit neat ideological categories. I am a registered Democrat, and I applaud Yale’s mission to better support underrepresented students. But I also recognize the dizzying irrationality of some supposedly liberal discourse in academia these days.

I didn’t leave a rewarding job and campus home on a whim. But I lost confidence that I could continue to teach about vulnerable children in an environment where full discussion of certain topics — such as absent fathers — has become almost taboo. It’s never easy to foster dialogue about race, class, gender and culture, but it will only become more difficult for faculty in disciplines concerned with the human condition if universities won’t declare that ideas and feelings aren’t interchangeable. Without more explicit commitment to this principle, students are denied an essential condition for intellectual and moral growth: the ability to practice, and sometimes fail at, the art of thinking out loud.
I hadn't seen much of this kind of nuttiness in New Zealand universities.

Long term, you'd expect this kind of thing to lead to a segregation equilibrium. Some universities would specialise in teaching anodyne material to sensitive students; others will promote themselves as places of free enquiry. Make sure to attend the one that suits your preference.

1 comment:

  1. Jonathan Haidt has created an index ranking universities based on their support for diversity of thought.