Who Matters in America? A Call for Political Correctness

A recent New York Times op-ed titled, "The Sheltering Campus: Why College Is Not Home", was yet another salvo in the pushback against "political correctness." The authors were not Trump acolytes, but a physics professor and retired psychiatrist from Yale University.

The op-ed was essentially a Valentine to Erika Christakis, the former Yale adjunct who dared criticize the University when it implored students to avoid offensive Halloween costumes. Christakis was, in the authors' opinion, unfairly vilified by a culture of political correctness run amok. I suppose I can muster some sympathy for Christakis too. She appears to be a reasonable woman and the reaction to her email message was needlessly vicious. Unfortunately, the disproportionate attention to her message and the reaction it drew further obscured the central point.

In measured tones, the authors criticized Yale and, by implication, higher education in general, of coddling a generation of college students who should be toughened up a bit.

Instead of promoting the idea of college as a transition from the shelter of the family to adult autonomy and responsibility, universities like Yale have given in to the implicit notion that they should provide the equivalent of the home environment.

There are real safety issues for college students, such as sexual assault and substance abuse, which require in loco parentis supervision. But social norms are increasingly being set by college authorities, not students. As Erika Christakis wrote in her email: "Are we all O.K. with this transfer of power?"

I find it curious that Christakis and the authors see this as a transfer of power, if there is a "this" there at all. When I attended college, a man needed explicit permission to enter a girls' dormitory. (I use "man" and "girls" intentionally to capture the sexist vibe of the time.) There were strict curfews and other social norms set by the college, apparently established as a means of letting us know what to break. Then, as now, learning how to work around the rules is a rite of passage. It is the delicate dance of maturity. In many ways, in the years since, colleges abdicated in loco parentis responsibilities and are now grappling with the consequences, particularly in terms of binge drinking and sexual violence. All over America, colleges and universities are trying to recapture the moral authority to set some social norms.

I find it odd, and somewhat contradictory, that the authors, and perhaps Christakis, are supportive of keeping students from harming themselves or others by excessive drinking or drug use. And I infer that they support comprehensive programs to prevent unwanted sexual advances. But when it comes to protecting students from the emotional pain of racism, homophobia and other explicit and implicit biases, no thanks. That's babying them!

Instead of promoting the idea of college as a transition from the shelter of the family to adult autonomy and responsibility, universities like Yale have given in to the implicit notion that they should provide the equivalent of the home environment.

I repeat the authors' accusation to make another crucial point. The students who ask for safe spaces or who seek refuge from the daily climate of micro (and macro)-aggression, are often students for whom the "shelter of the family" wasn't so very helpful. Institutionalized racism has decimated too many families of color, making homes and neighborhoods anything but the "safe haven" that the authors feel a university need not replicate. Gay and lesbian students have often been ostracized, marginalized and humiliated, not cossetted in a warm, supportive middle-class family.

I think the authors conflate two very different phenomena. The rise of so-called "political correctness" is not the infantilizing of students. It is the long overdue voice given to the real experiences of all students. For many, many decades, students of color, gay students, women students and others were marginalized and silenced, as the white male majority (of which I am a lifetime charter member) set the academic standards, controlled social norms, and dominated administrations and boards of trustees.

This flurry of backlash to "trigger warnings" and other culturally sensitive aspects of campus life is just the death rattle of the comfortable way things used to be.

Are there occasional excesses on the part of students of color, LGBTQIA (Google it) students, and others who have only recently been liberated enough to speak openly? Yes, of course. But it is not primarily a problem of coddling young folks or being too sensitive.

It is a critical recalibration of who matters in America.