"Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."
These were the incendiary words of University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison mentioned in an email last month welcoming incoming freshmen as they unpacked their George Foreman Grills and identified who had the fake ID connection.
As anyone somewhat conscious in the current age of social media could imagine, the words ignited a self-righteous shitstorm of right and wrong, tar and feather.
Vox media outlet called the letter a “power play.” TheDailyBeast claimed Ellison wasn’t addressing the students but actually addressing the "wealthy conservative alumni." Other universities took the opposite road and offered students special amenities like Cal State which agreed to provide black student housing options. "Trigger warnings" and "Safe spaces" were the media hot issues and the Dean Ellison was the kindle for which it burned. In truth, it's been a slow procession of universities making their own beds and now, with financial options exhausted, they must sleep in the tear-soaked sheets of the demanding student bodies.
One unlikely adversary affectionately refers to these student uprisings as "cuddle puddles." His name is Larry Harvey and he founded a little festival called Burning Man. Started in 1986, Burning Man began as a group of friends hanging out on the San Francisco beach. Today, the festival has morphed into a gathering of 70,000 in the Nevada Desert for a Mad Max meets Silicon Valley party of free minds. As the founder of Burning Man, Harvey wouldn’t be first on your list of die-hard democrats to disprove of the current state of student politics but he does, vehemently.
“The pursuit of comfort has made us more insecure. Have you noticed what’s happening with student politics now?” he explains in an interview with the Financial Times. “It’s all about feeling more secure, it’s all hugging one another and receding into cuddle puddles.” The author later learns that cuddle puddles are slang for hugging parties.
“I might lose some fans by saying that,” he adds. “I’m not saying they don’t have issues — they do. Black lives do indeed matter, that’s a good thing. But I think our consumer society has changed us in ways that most people find hard to confront or even recognize.”
And he couldn’t be more correct.
Our penchant for changing the things that make us uncomfortable has created a false sense of reality and eliminated the biggest driver of change: discomfort. When it’s controversial for a Dean to “expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate … that may challenge you and even cause discomfort,” we’ve hit a tipping point in what higher education truly means. America is at a time when we need to confront the realities and address them openly and transparently, not from an ivory tower or segregated dorm room.
“Progress comes from struggles, shared with others, towards some common goal. It doesn’t come from love per se,” Harvey continues.
It’s unfair to blame students for the current state of campus politics. All mothers know it takes two to tango. Higher education is fucked. As Universities become more dependent on student tuition as income, the more Universities are forced to roll over when student demands come down the pike. Don’t want Condoleeza Rice speaking at your University because you disagree with her Iraq war stance? Protest and Rutgers will cancel the appearance. Think your poetry courses have too many white male poets? Protest and watch the department cringe with fear.
What college students need to understand is that just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it should change and you shouldn’t. Life isn’t that way. Trigger warnings and safe spaces aren’t going to make the journey through life any easier, in fact they’ll only make it more difficult. We can't run our highest institutions on the fear of offending or succombing to the needs of each and every student group. We are the total sum of our experiences… unfortunately that applies to both good and bad experiences.