Last weekend, I completed work on a new novel and emailed the 400-page manuscript to my editor. The next morning I opened the New York Times to find much of that novel's subject matter on the front page: encampments of protesting students on college quadrangles, racial epithets written in human excreta, bewildered administrators unsure of how to react to incensed undergraduates. The evidence of my apparent prescience was unnerving. (My fiction has been called many things, but seldom zeitgeisty.) Suddenly, my contemporaries (whose 1970s and 1980s campuses were far less liberal than they are today) were passionately discussing the current protests, and the students' prioritizing of personal emotional needs over an exchange of opposing opinions, as in the now infamous statement in a Yale Herald Op-Ed: "I don't want to debate. I want to talk about my pain."
The position of current student protesters, at least at Yale and Princeton (where my husband is a professor and where my 2009 novel Admission was set), is that the power of language and thought to "trigger" distressing emotion is so all-consuming that we must avoid the sharing of any idea, opinion or historical truth that might offend. Faculty are asked to be sensitive to the needs of their students, and resident housemasters (the word "master" has, itself, become problematic) are told that their sole purpose is to make a "safe" home at college for the students. In this perplexing environment, the simple suggestion by a faculty member that students might actually gain something by experiencing -- and discussing -- offense has been met by vociferous demands for that faculty member's removal.
When I arrived at Dartmouth College in 1979, the traditionally conservative, white and extremely male campus was still reeling from the incursion of women, students of color and out gay undergraduates. The Indian Symbol -- beloved by Dartmouth alumni -- had been banned once actual Native Americans began to matriculate, and students, myself among them, got busy agitating for greater awareness of racial prejudice, validation of women's experience, and a basic understanding that that there was more than one way to interpret history. Out of this simmering campus came the Dartmouth Review, a right wing student publication modeled on (and funded by) the National Review, with a masthead that included young conservatives who would go on to become (and remain) national figures. The Review did not worry about causing, let alone triggering, distress; they secretly recorded gay students in their meetings and published the transcript, referred to female faculty members as "professorettes", mercilessly hounded an African-American professor by lampooning his teaching style, and issued an open invitation to a lobster and steak feast at a local inn on a day Dartmouth students were fasting in solidarity with people starving in Africa.
I disagreed with virtually everything these young conservatives said, but I was only able to do that because I actually listened to what they were saying.
What strikes me most about today's protestors is their apparent wish for a college environment that is a hermetically sealed zone, in which one is protected from any other student or faculty member who holds a different viewpoint, and in which concern over triggering distress protects everyone from the uncomfortable experience of encountering someone who disagrees with them.
This apprehension even extends into the past, as Yale and Princeton students call for the renaming of Calhoun College (Yale) and The Woodrow Wilson School (Princeton), on the grounds that the men thus memorialized held undeniably unsavory views. But history exists for us to learn from, and to measure our distance from, not for us to eradicate along with its lessons; I would actually go so far as to say that this is the essence of education. The personal task of young students is to consider the world and define themselves, and this cannot be accomplished if the world has been sanitized or edited for them.
I entered college in 1979 a vague liberal and I left in 1983 a confirmed liberal, but during those years I took every opportunity to learn from classmates who did not share my views (unpleasant as that experience sometimes was). My hope for these current students is that they will stop shielding themselves with their own pain long enough to actually interact with people who disagree with them, whether across time or inside the classroom. That's the very education they went to college for.