By Jack Herrera
PC Culture is infantilizing students — so we need “grown-ups” to fix it for us?
My column last week touched on what we’ll call the “aPCalypse”: the impending doom of Western Liberalism at the hands of the PC Police. As I noted, Ben Carson warned in 2013 that “political correctness is antithetical to our founding principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”
Carson’s column in the Washington Times and his political career-launching speech at the National Prayer Breakfast have been met with increasingly grim warnings about the dangers of PC Culture, particularly in reference to college students. Critics have continually avowed that college campuses have become corrupted bastions of the PC Police. In January of this year, Jonathan Chait wrote an influential article in New York Magazine deriding PC Culture on college campuses and declaring that “political correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression…it is antithetical to liberalism.” The National Review (predictably) hopped on board in March, with staff writer Charles C.W. Cooke calling PC Culture on campus “The New McCarthyism.”
Chait and Cooke’s dire assessments have been mixed with more level-headed responses from people like Edward Schlosser, a self-proclaimed “liberal college professor,” who wrote in Vox about how fear of offending his students has crippled his ability to teach them. Then, at a September town hall meeting in Des Moines, President Obama stated:
“I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women… I don’t agree with that… I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”
And earlier that same September, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt penned a long, thoughtful piece in The Atlantic that addressed how college students’ understanding of trigger warnings and offense ran counter to research into healthy emotional states for young people.
With so many influential — and even a few respectable — voices entering the debate about potential ideological hegemony on college campuses, it’s hard not believe something truly worrisome is occurring. Respected researchers and world leaders have weighed in with concern. However, I can’t help but notice that the opinions of college students themselves have been conspicuously absent from the spotlight. This absence may seem understandable: Few college-aged folks write for national publications, and none of them — to the best of my knowledge — are leaders in any major nations. But I worry that the college perspective has been excluded simply because it is not respected.
To my point: When quotes from students do appear in articles about PC Culture, they are almost uniformly statements students made during a “PC Incident.” These statements are often emotional and on the ideological fringe, and fit neatly in with articles’ arguments or warnings. There are few (I’ve only found a couple in weeks of reading this stuff) student quotes from a direct interview that engages student leaders on their intellectual opinions regarding PC Culture.
It seems that critics of PC Culture regard students’ opinions — students who are purportedly experiencing PC culture on their own campuses — as irrelevant. Ironically, critics of what Lukianoff and Haidt call “The Coddling of the American Mind” have entered the very paternalistic mindset they deride: They assume that, as college students, we don’t know any better when we engage in PC Culture, and they assume that the only way to fix the problem is for “adults” to swoop in and make everything alright. Lukianoff and Haidt’s impressively thorough article is full of potential solutions to college PC Culture, but they almost exclusively consist of changes in federal statutes and administration policies. Only one recommendation involves students: It advocates group training sessions and online courses to educate students in how to more appropriately handle opinions and actions they find offensive (ostensibly without crying to the PC Police).
The student education Lukianoff and Haidt advocate is cognitive behavioral therapy, and, to be fair, it’s actually a great idea. But the point I’m trying to make is that none of their policy implementations — or any suggestion I’ve read in other authors’ articles — recommend actually engaging with students, or involving us as caretakers in our own education. If critics of higher education are worried that universities and colleges are infantilizing students by shielding us from the real world, why do they insist that the responsibility to fix our own problem is not on us? If students are to be treated as the adults we are, we ought be at least involved in assessing (and then changing) the climates of our campuses.
But we are not trusted to possess reasonable opinions of our own education, for when college issues are debated, the term “PC Culture” is leveraged to devastating effect. As a phrase, PC Culture paints students as caricatures of over-sensitivity, and colors us with a childish yearning for protection from ideas that “hurt our feelings.” We are not taken seriously.
This is the reason I’ve adopted the subject of PC Culture in my columns: It is not because I feel the need to defend PC Culture as an ideology. Quite the opposite is true: In future columns, I will harshly critique advocacy that seeks to silence oppositional opinions. But it is clear to me that dire warnings of of the “aPClypse” do not accurately reflect what takes place on my campus. And, as a liberal college student myself, I will not stand for it when accusations of “PC Culture” are used not just to delegitimize the advocacy of young liberals, but also to disregard the seriousness of all college-aged adults.
Contact Jack Herrera at herreraj ‘at’ stanford.edu.