Scary Ideas (updated)


People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?

That’s from a column in The New York Times  by Judith Shulevitz on what she sees as a movement to protect students from “scary ideas.” Who disagrees with the idea that students should be exposed to unfamiliar and challenging and sometimes scary ideas? Not many people, I suspect. This doesn’t stop Shulevitz from whipping together a bunch of odd stories to justify the need to write her column, which seems full of hyperbole, equivocation, and uncritical nostalgia. Some of the stories she recounts suggest that some students may be a bit oversensitive and a bit silly (nothing new there), but I don’t know how seriously to take them. Clearly the most outrageous stories will get the most attention, and the ability to find a few by no means constitutes a trend. Additionally, she mischaracterizes the one case I know about (Kipnis at Northwestern; see this), so I don’t know how reliable her reporting of the other cases is.

I wasn’t planning on linking to this but, judging from social media, there seems to be some interest in discussing the story among philosophers, who are often in the business of presenting challenging and sometimes scary ideas. I would be particularly interested in hearing whether philosophers have encountered pushback from students and administrators on the discussing controversial or scary topics, or inviting speakers to do so, and whether such pushback came in the form of blocking speech (e.g., cancelling a talk) or the provision of alternatives (e.g., here’s a space you can go if you feel particularly bothered by some speech).

UPDATE (4/6/15): Lauren Leydon-Hardy, a PhD Student at Northwestern, has a column at the Huffington Post on the controversy surrounding the piece by Laura Kipnis.

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