‘I’m offended’ has no place in the classroom

Published 11:26 am Saturday, August 15, 2015

The college environment is changing swiftly — and not for the better. Students nowadays, particularly those who identify as Democrats and social justice activists, are essentially leading a campaign to baby-proof higher education.

Their goal: to eradicate speech that could potentially be offensive or “triggering” to those who have experienced trauma.

At face value this seems a noble and worthy cause. Those who have suffered traumatic events and are experiencing PTSD should be able to avoid conversations and debates that could possibly trigger episodes of anxiety. And students of color and other minoritized populations certainly shouldn’t be subjected to hate speech. But many of the social activists are taking this too far, hampering their ability to receive an education, but more importantly disrupting the education of their peers.

For example, this past December, students at Harvard Law asked their professors not to teach rape law, fearing that it could dredge up old trauma for any rape victims that may be enrolled in the course.

Imagine if these students’ request had been answered. There would be an entire graduating class of Harvard Law School that had no familiarity or experience with handling rape cases in the courtroom. Surely this would produce more negative effects for future rape victims than it would positively effects for anyone who was in the classroom.

Student activists are also targeting books such as “The Great Gatsb” and “Things Fall Apart,” classic literature that they feel is “offensive” to some populations, and therefore unworthy of study.

The problem with this movement to avoid being offended in the classroom is this: the purpose of receiving an education is to broaden your horizons and experience things outside of your comfort zone. Sometimes that means confronting ideas that you don’t agree with head-on and engaging with them, considering the opposing view and making an informed decision about what you believe.

Take for example the philosophy class that I was enrolled in my first semester. At one point, we were discussing Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” and the effect it had on the Code Noir, the laws governing the black people of the French settlements in the New World, and how that in turn affected the lives of black Americans up to today. After class was over, I overheard one black student say that she was uncomfortable and offended by the discussion we were having in class.

This was a powerful discussion of race in America, and how our history continues to haunt our present, and this individual didn’t pay attention to the first word because she was “offended.”

In another instance, I witnessed a white student being told he didn’t have a voice in debates about affirmative action because he wasn’t part of a minoritized population and he risked offending someone.

Here’s my take: Offense is subjective. You may be offended by something, and your fellow students may perceive no reason to be hurt or insulted. One of the things that my philosophy professor bored into our brains is the idea of “intellectual charity” in which students are encouraged to consider points of view they disagree with or are offended by before discarding it entirely.

When we silence our fellow students, or attempt to censor our professors because we are “offended” by the material discussed in a classroom, we only hurt ourselves. The classroom is a place where we are meant to consider new viewpoints, avenues of thoughts and learn about experiences that are not our own. By closing ourselves off to opinions that don’t dovetail with ours, we are denying intellectual charity to the other side. And when students insist that professors only teach about subjects or topics that fit their agenda, they are denying a well-balanced education to themselves and their peers — which, if they truly value their own higher education, should be unconscionable.

Walter Francis Jr. is a student at American University and is serving as a staff writer for The Tidewater News this summer. Email him at walter.francis@tidewaternews.com.