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Sunday, May 21st, 2017

University Education: From Enlightenment to Darkness

Retrospectively, the twentieth century appears to have been an educational age of enlightenment. It was a time when universities were places of advanced learning and centers for the free exchange of ideas, places where young people were exposed to a wealth of information and were given an opportunity to critically examine a variety of beliefs and concepts. It was a time marked by the rational and measured exploration and discussion of the world in which we live. It was a time when professors assigned books for their students to read—books which broadened their horizons, took them to faraway places, revealed hitherto unknown schools of thought and, perhaps most importantly, challenged their way of viewing the world.

I thought of that era the other day when I came across a syllabus from a social psychology class of mine. We had had some raucous times in those classes especially when we discussed the novels that I assigned as reading for the “Social Issues” section of the course—novels like Robert Gover’s “One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding” and Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle.” They were novels that I hoped would foment discussion about some of the concerns of the time. And they invariably did.

Sadly I realize that those books wouldn’t make it passed the educational censors in this century, the educational age of darkness. Think of it, one of those books is about a weekend jam-packed with misunderstandings between a fourteen year old black prostitute and a nineteen year old white college student and the other is about an adolescent girl coming to the realization that she is a lesbian. Those are potentially dangerous territories to venture into in this era of political correctness, a time when a veil has been drawn across the banner of academic freedom. It is a time when the open and frank discussion of ideas and thoughts has been subverted by the push to eliminate all contentious material from education. And that’s not an exaggeration. If you don’t believe me take a look at some of the proclamations that govern university teaching today.

“Trigger Warnings” is a good one. Some universities now require their professors to provide Trigger Warnings. “Trigger Warnings,” you ask. “What are they?” They are warnings, for example, that some of the assigned material may be offensive or distressing to some people. But isn’t that what literature is all about—reflecting and commenting on what happens in our world, describing events that are not always (or even often) composed of sweetness and light. Maybe so, but that doesn’t seem to count if the edicts of university manuals on trigger warnings are to be obeyed. Simply put professors are told to avoid assigning “offensive” material or material that “might cause trauma.”

The trouble with that is that almost anything that comes up for discussion in a classroom (or anywhere else for that matter) has the potential to be a trigger for someone because it may run counter to a belief or it may bring back memories of an unpleasant experience or because a particular individual may just not like it.

And get this. Recently a professor at Laurentian University was stopped from teaching a first year psychology class because he asked his students “to sign off on his use of vulgar language.” Is there not some sort of irony here? Isn’t he being censured for, in fact, providing trigger warnings?

And just so you’ll know that it’s not only university administrators that engage in the political correctness game and to give you an idea of how extensive and ludicrous this whole business has become, in April of last year there was an attempt to expel a student from a meeting of the Student Association at Edinburgh University. Her crime? She raised her hand to indicate her disagreement with a point that had been made at the meeting. That gesture—the raised hand—violated the “Safe Space” policy which demands that people refrain from making hand gestures which denote disagreement. Check it out, if you don’t believe me.

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