Two Ideals of College: What Yale Can Teach Us

The leafy older part of the campus with traditional New England brick architecture.
The leafy older part of the campus with traditional New England brick architecture.

Every so often an event occurs that makes startlingly clear a lesson you really should have grasped by now. That happened to me recently, connected to the dustup at Yale involving efforts to ensure sensitivity in the wearing of Halloween costumes. The basic facts are by now widely known. Yale's Intercultural Affairs Council sends out an email urging students to be culturally sensitive in choosing costumes. The associate master at one of Yale's colleges expresses unease over what strikes her as a paternalistic attempt to police students' decision-making. Angry students confront Nicholas Christakis, the spouse of the associate master and himself the master of that college. Videotape of that encounter surges around the internet (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLvIqJIL2kOMefn77xg6-6yrvek5kbNf3Z).

While there's been no shortage of analysis of the issues in this debate, to my mind nothing more clearly reveals the current state of things on college campuses than the videotape itself. (I have watched this footage with an intensity usually reserved for the Zapruder film or the Sopranos series ending, but here I'll be selective.) The video constitutes nothing less than an allegory depicting two rival ideals that are, right now, battling for primacy at American universities.

One ideal, repeatedly invoked by the students, is that of college as a secure, nurturing, welcoming home for all. "It's no longer a safe space for me," says one, while another tells Christakis that his role is "to create a space of comfort and home for the students." Now it must be admitted that within current conversational dynamics, the claim that one has been denied a safe space functions as a dialogical move to unassailably high ground: it brooks no disagreement. But whatever we think of that, the students' claims here not only point to an urgent and wholly reasonable need, but also implicitly invoke Yale's own policies, which describe college masters as entrusted with their students' "physical well being and safety" and with overseeing each college's "social, cultural, and educational life and character." Whether these were genuinely threatened by the email exchange over costumes is debatable, I think, but it is hardly surprising that the students saw Christakis as someone more than just another professor, that they looked to him to confirm their sense of home.

Christakis shows little concern for that appeal. He repeatedly tries to shift the discussion onto the terrain of pure ideas, thus invoking a competing ideal of college as fundamentally a place of intellectual inquiry. But in this context, of course, such a move cannot help but suggest to the students that he does not register their concerns. The utter disconnect between the two comes across most clearly in an exchange with one student who seems confounded by the fact that he will not instantly accede to the students' demand for an apology: "I have to think about this idea for a moment," he says thoughtfully. Trying to explain his hesitancy through an analogy, he asks the students to consider how they would respond if he asked them to apologize for having interrupted his obligations to meet other students. This request is met with audible expressions of contempt, as though he's asking for an apology. But he's obviously not. He's trying to show that the mere request for an apology, even when an action interferes with another's interests, does not by itself entitle one to an apology. His basic point is sound and important: apologies are acknowledgements that we acted wrongly, and as we know full well, people can be hurt by all sorts of acts that are not themselves wrong. It may well be true that Christakis should apologize, because he (or his wife?) has done something wrong. (I suspect so, though it's a hard call.) But he should not apologize just because the students demand it.

What he certainly should do is express regret and convey sympathy, but he is so stuck on the conceptual point involved that he cannot see even this. Right here it's important to say that it's not hard to see why he is stuck on that point. Over the last few years college campuses have witnessed the steady erosion of a distinction that is utterly central not just to their mission but, I'm tempted to say, to the general maintenance of social order at some fundamental level. I mean the distinction between on the one hand what a person thinks about an action (feeling that it was offensive, for example, or deeming it unwelcome), and on the other a reasonable assessment of the act itself (that it was genuinely offensive, say, or a truly wrong thing to do).

Christakis is desperate not to lose that distinction, and his anxiety is understandable. To imagine a world without it is not to imagine a world with fewer acts that harm others, or one where we all magically get along better. It is instead to imagine a world where the mere declaration of hurt thereby amounts to a legitimate claim, where the moral quality of our own actions is a function of something over which we have no control, and where there is ultimately no verdict beyond a person's own feelings about the reality of what has happened. It is also, and probably most importantly, an abandonment of the raison d'etre of a university: the idea that through careful study in a close community with others, marked by respectful exchange, sympathetic imagination, and shared good will, we can come to better views about questions that really matter - questions about not just our place in the cosmos or the causes of World War I, but about what each of us is owed, the causes and hidden structures of injustice, our obligations to the disadvantaged, and so on.

In acknowledging the importance of this distinction do I thereby align myself with Christakis? It's not nearly that simple. To register that someone is saying something right does not mean you are entirely on their side, any more than understanding well why the students felt as angry and unhappy as they did means you agree with everything they said. Indeed, the idea that we must choose sides here is very much the problem. The task facing colleges today is how to combine these two ideals - college as an equally inviting and safe place for all its students, committed to the free and sometimes critical exchange of ideas - without sacrificing either substantially.

I have no idea how to do that. I'm pretty sure, however, that demonizing either side won't bring us a whit closer. Champions of free speech have moved quickly to dismiss the students' views and to highlight the disruptions to basic civility that accompanied their expression (one publication harshly dubbed one obviously upset student in the video "the shrieking woman"), all the while forgetting that we are dealing with young men and women who feel they can finally voice concerns about marginalization and mistreatment they have suffered for years and who live in a country that, of late, has presented dramatic evidence that the lives of some people don't matter as much as the lives of others. On the other side, advocates of the students' ideal of college will simply see Christakis and his ilk as the unvarnished enemy, perhaps even joining Jelani Cobb's disgraceful suggestion in the New Yorker that today's champions of free speech are simply re-enacting the "Negrophobe" thinking that seeks to maintain subordination of those who are not white. Neither of these responses is productive. Whether colleges can be genuinely welcoming places that do the important work they are built to do will depend, in the coming years, on finding a way forward that avoids both of them.