Should College Classes Make Students Uncomfortable?

Whitney Cox is right on. In her classes at the University of Houston, she insists that conservative religious students be open to the idea of discomfort as they study the Bible. Can we translate her advice to college students in general?

whitney cox

Preach!

Cox tells the story of a “star pupil” who worries that her Bible class might shake up his preconceptions. It should, she replies. She doesn’t want to tell the student what to believe. In fact, she insists that she is not willing or able to do so. But she does want her class to challenge him to think about the Bible in new ways.

Hear, hear. That is the purpose of education, especially higher education. IMHO.

So here’s our question: What if we change things around a little bit? What if we replace a conservative religious student with a left-leaning social-action student?

I’ve argued lately that the recent tumults on college campuses result from an “impulse to orthodoxy” among such leftist students. Students demand an end to ideas that make them feel “unsafe.” They demand the ouster of faculty and administrators with whom they disagree.

Could such students and such campuses benefit from Cox’s advice? Here’s what she told her conservative student:

I find frustrating the too-frequent sentiment from Christians that equates interrogating and examining the texts with destroying faith. There is a strain of anti-intellectualism in modern US Christianity that is vile, unbiblical, and deadlier to faith than scholarly examination could ever be. It demands an unquestioning obedience and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform to the party line, who dares to question the people in power.

I am forever angry at the orthodoxies that demand literal belief as an all-or-nothing proposition, not only because that kind of approach makes you immune to reason, but because it means that more likely than not, that one bit of counter-information that makes it through takes down the rest like a Jenga tower. I’ve seen this a lot with people raised as strict creationists but who later realize that the scientific support for evolution is overwhelming — and because they’ve been taught they can’t doubt one part without doubting it all, they end up tossing it all out the window. Because they’ve learned that any questioning is evil, they decide they have to take all their questions elsewhere.

Fantastic, and right on.  SO right on, in fact, that we should broaden it to include other sorts of student worry as well.

What if we tweaked the wording here and there? What if we gave this advice to students?

I find frustrating the too-frequent sentiment from left-leaning students that equates interrogating and examining the texts with racism. There is a strain of anti-intellectualism in modern US society that is vile, anti-social, and deadlier to social justice than scholarly examination could ever be. It demands an unquestioning obedience and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform to the party line, who dares to question the people in power.

Please don’t misunderstand me. As I’ve said repeatedly, I support the moral impulse behind the student activism at many schools today. Like many commentators, though, I worry that the necessary tension has been leached out of campus life.

Schools must be aggressive and decisive in their efforts to make sure every student feels welcome. Incidents such as the repeated racial hazing at Mizzou, for example, are not merely over-wrought snowflake problems.

The flip side of that campus necessity, however, is that students must be intellectually challenged. They must be physically safe. More than that, they have a right to demand institutional action to help them feel confident that they are safe from demeaning microaggressions.

Too often, however, this vital goal of safe spaces has turned into an overzealous drive for intellectual safety. Nothing will kill higher education faster than that.

I’ll say it again.  We need to remember both halves of the higher-education mandate:

  • Students must be physically and even emotionally safe.
  • Students should never feel intellectually safe.

If we’re doing our jobs, as Whitney Cox is, this should apply in equal measure to conservative creationists and progressive anti-racists.

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3 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  November 19, 2015

    “There is a strain of anti-intellectualism in modern US society that is vile…”

    In the context of your argument, it seems like “modern US leftism” would be the appropriate substitution.

    Other than that, I agree with you.

    Reply
  2. Too often, however, this vital goal of safe spaces has turned into an overzealous drive for intellectual safety. Nothing will kill higher education faster than that.

    Yes, I agree.

    Reply
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