Reminiscing. Every now and then I hear about trends in many colleges and universities that tend to stifle and even punish open debate or discussion of controversial ideas. Recently there has been some hullabaloo around the issue of using transgender pronouns in class, with at least one school moving to shut down open discussion. My response is, “So what else is new?”
Humans do not seem to be wonderful in regard to mutual respect if there are differences of any kind. That’s the way it was when I was a student and today’s loud political correctness on campus is only another version of the hostility that has always been there. And sometimes in the past, different perspectives were avoided by simply barring attendance of people from the “wrong” background or sex.
Yes, reminiscing. My first school of higher learning was a Christian liberal arts college, where there was the view that in order to prepare students for life in today’s society, they had to be exposed to the world as well as to a Biblical outlook. Bertrand Russell’s influential book Why I am not a Christian was required reading, as were many other authors of various perspectives. I recall that even a radical atheist was invited to speak to one particular class. This school was no greenhouse and it developed many effective Christian leaders over the years.
Attending a secular college and a university later on, I assumed I would likewise be challenged with other points of view and would be encouraged to engage in debate grounded in research. I found that to be true only to a limited degree. It depended partly on the instructor’s professionalism and ability to guide student input. Often I was targeted for special verbal abuse by some students or occasionally by a professor. I expected it and usually did not take it personally. I was a committed Christian, used to a certain amount of antagonism or unfair stereotyping, and knew I had to learn a spiritual way of dealing with these things. Still, I was surprised when a certain department head withheld my examination paper at the end of the course, meaning I would get an “Incomplete.” I complained to the administration and they, perhaps not for the first time, investigated the professor and found my examination booklet (with my name on it) lying on his desk! I was allowed to write the exam late and passed the course.
There were other times when a clash of perspectives turned out for good in the end. In one term paper, I decided to critique the narrowly-focused philosophy of one particular course and the way it was taught. Predictably perhaps, the instructor was furious and gave me a very low mark. Later on in the summer, I happened to be at a conference that she was also attending. On seeing me, she walked straight up to me and apologized. She said she had learned from the critique.
So even though I accepted opposition and sometimes had it work well in the end, I am quite aware that people do not love differences nor do they usually have real respect for others who truly are “other.” These days, if someone wanted to be addressed by a new pronoun, I would do it out of simple respect and try to get on with the conversation, but in any case, protest demonstrations in the classroom or administrative punishments are not conducive to academic freedom. Ideally, institutions of higher learning should be leaders in teaching respectful debate, but in real life it often “just ain’t so.” Therefore I’ve come to acknowledge that regrettable fact and think, “So what else is new?”
On a somewhat happier note, my “Christmas card” to my readers will appear on December 1 (2017).