Leaving the Nest: Safe College Discussion vs. Open College Discussion
College is the time in my life where I am experiencing the adult world for the first time. Intellectual conversations introduce me to new ideas and refine my beliefs, defining who I will be professionally and throughout my life.
I have started this time in my life with strong world views that stem from my upbringing. In two articles, “I’m a Duke Freshman. Here’s Why I Refused to Read ‘Fun Home,'” by Brian Grasso (2015) printed in The Washington Post and, “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” by Judith Shulevitz (2015), printed in the New York Times, two writers address the role the university should play in censorship of college classroom discussions and educational materials. Shulevitz (2015) states, “While keeping college level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else.” In contrast, Grasso (2015) states, “I believe professors should warn me about such materials [pornography and erotic language], not because I might find it offensive or uncomfortable, but because I consider it immoral.
” I will take a closer look at the articles by Brian Grasso (2015) and Judith Shulevitz (2015) to answer the questions of whether or not universities should censor classroom discussions and materials, as well as when students should have the option to opt out of offensive and/or traumatizing academic materials. Brian Grasso (2015), the writer behind The Washington Post article, “I’m a Duke Freshman. Here’s why I Refused to Read ‘Fun Home,'” is a freshman at Duke University who was asked to read something that goes against what he feels is moral. Even though he is a Christian, he says he is open to new ideas and reading materials such as books written by Freud, Marx and Darwin (Grasso, 2015). However, when asked to read a novel that contains erotic language and pornographic images, Grasso (2015) feels that a moral line has been crossed. He chooses to post about his decision to not read the book Fun Home to the class Facebook page with the hopes of reaching out to those who feel the same way. This post caught the attention of people schoolwide when several people publically denounced his decision, and a few people thanked him privately for his courage to stand up for his morals. Later on, his Facebook post caught the attention nationwide when he published an article about his decision in The Washington Post. As I read the two-page article, I started questioning whether or not someone should be forced, for a school assignment, to read a book that they felt was morally wrong. In the New York Times article entitled, “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas,” by Judith Shulevitz (2015), a young girl who is a victim of sexual assault wants to go to a “safe place” and be exempt from a lecture that would cause her the pain of reliving her trauma. Shulevitz (2015) discusses the dangers of allowing students to opt out of assignments when she writes, “While keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else.
” A depiction is given about what happens when students foster the need to hide from “scary” topics, ideas, world views and literature that make them feel uncomfortable. Shulevitz (2015) takes the position that nothing should be off limits for classroom material and discussion. She strongly advocates the intellectual implications of censoring college discussions to create a “safe place,” a term she defines as, “innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism, or … subtle displays of racial or sexual bias.” Shulevitz (2015) explains that the college community has incubated a culture amongst themselves in which they fear both offending and being offended. As a result, this creates an entire demographic of people who are “self-infantilized.” Shulevitz (2015) explains that one of the purposes of going to college should be to broaden a student’s field of vision.
Then Shulevitz (2015) warns, “Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.” Students who have not learned how to discuss ideas that challenge their point of view will be unprepared for intellectual post-college conversation (Shulevitz, 2015) In a recent study my WRIT 101 class conducted, eighteen, primarily freshman students, attending Montana State University-Billings, between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five, were asked to anonymously answer a series of questions online about open college discussion vs. safe college discussion. Twenty-two percent of students who took part in the survey were men, and one sixth were non-Caucasian. The survey questions address different aspects of students views about censorship of college classroom discussion and materials.
Questions also ask opinions on how to address concerns on potentially traumatizing or offensive subjects. One of the questions asked in the survey conducted was, “Do you feel that students that have a religious objection with academic material should have the option to receive an alternative assignment?” The results shown in the visual below are rather interesting. Of the people who took the survey, only six percent felt that students with a religious objection to academic material should not have the option to receive an alternative assignment. Eighty-nine percent of all students who participated in the study felt that students should have the option to opt out of an assignment or educational material for religious/moral reasons, while only eleven percent felt they should not. Eighty-two percent of college students I surveyed felt that it was more important for a college classroom to be an open place than a “safe place.
” However, less than half of those students felt comfortable being open when talking about touchy subjects. In response to Brian Grasso’s (2015) article, I feel that if a student has moral objections with the material for a class, the professor should be open to listening to the concerns of the student and have alternative materials for them to read that would satisfy the same educational goals. Out of the eighteen people surveyed, only one person thought that students with religious or moral implications with an assignment shouldn’t have the option to receive an alternative assignment. I do not believe, however, that students like Grasso, who have a religious objection to course material, should be exempt from the classroom discussion. As Grasso states (2015), “there is an important distinction between images and written words.” To be exempt from the classroom discussion about the book and its controversial themes would be a disservice to the objecting student’s education.
College students should not be asked to partake in an act that they feel is immoral such as the act Grasso mentions of viewing pornographic images. They should however, be able to discuss the themes in a respectful and mature way. Other classmates who may disagree with Grasso’s opinion towards the themes in the book should also be open to hearing Grasso’s views on the topic so that a productive and informative discussion can take place. It is my position that being exposed to ideas that challenge a student’s beliefs is healthy. It is not the purpose of the university to censor what is or isn’t acceptable for academic discussion points. Excluding the ideas of those whose opinions are unpopular or politically incorrect incubates a one-sided environment.
An example taken from my own is experience which illustrates my position, is a time in my high school education where I joined the NCFCA (the National Christian Forensics and Communications Association). This organization is a national teen, home school, speech and debate circuit. As a member, I competed around the country on predetermined current political and ethical topics. In this organization’s debate competitions, there are many topics censored in the hopes of protecting the competitors from offensive ideas. Unfortunately, I observed that by censoring arguments and debate points, a hostile, close-minded environment had been fostered.
As a result of this experience, I am brought to the conclusion that by allowing the university to censor discussions about sensitive subjects, students would miss out on the opportunity to expand, share and refine their worldviews. In response to Shulevitz’s (2015) New York Times article, I am in agreement with Shulevitz’s point that a classroom with censored ideas is detrimental to the education of the students present. What my survey revealed was that less than half of those students questioned, felt comfortable being open when talking about touchy subjects. This might highlight precisely what Shulevitz suggests, that college level discussions should take students outside of their comfort-zone and help them broaden their worldview. Shulevitz (2015) would not, however, support Grasso’s (2015) moral objection as Shulevitz implies that no situation is worthy of exception. This causes me to ask the questions, “what about traumatized victims that Shulevitz (2015) mentions in her article? Should these students be given trigger warnings?” Shulevitz (2015) does not make allowances for these students and minimalizes their position with her overall tone when talking about these victims.
I feel that Shulevitz (2015) takes her position too far. Over the past five years, I have spent a significant amount of time with victims of trauma.Every one of them had similar shared struggles, whether they had been in a serious car accident, been through domestic violence or had experienced sexual assault. One of the most crippling characteristics they all shared was a destructive reaction to conversation, visuals and text that portrayed aspects of their trauma. Even after significant time had passed, many victims were not able to properly process and heal from their experiences.
Interestingly, one-hundred percent of the people surveyed felt that lectures, educational materials and group discussion that could cause a victim of trauma to relive their experience should be given a trigger warning. Those surveyed also felt that these students should have the option to not do an assignment, be a part of conversation or read educational material. Professors who don’t want a student to opt out of an assignment or discussion should have an alternative assignment prepared. In conclusion, I agree with Shulevitz (2015) when she says that college materials and discussion should be open to the ideas of different worldviews, even if those ideas may be politically incorrect or unpopular. However, I disagree with her when it comes to educational material and discussions that are potentially mentally damaging to victims of trauma.
I would add to this disagreement, students like Grasso (2015) who have moral/religious objections. In these situations, an advanced trigger warning should be given. Students who feel they cannot take part in these academic assignments should have the option to receive an alternative assignment of equal educational value at the discretion of the professor. I agree with both Shulevitz (2015) and Grasso (2015) when they say that college level discussions should be an open, respectful exchange of students who have opposing ideas, morals, and politics. With the routine practice of discussing the issues in this manner, students will gain the skills necessary for evaluating new and challenging ideas as well as articulating their own views. By sharpening these intellectual tools, they will be more effective and successful in their post-college career and throughout their lives.