When you think about heading off to college, what’s the first thing that enters your mind? A new adventure? New ideas being presented to you? Your mind being stretched and challenged? To use today’s vernacular: LOL! That’s SO last century (well, and many other centuries prior to that, but they’re all filled with old, dead people, meaning that’s all clearly irrelevant to us)!
The University of Texas at San Antonio’s Philosophy department, for example, doesn’t seem to be a fan of, well, students speaking freely in private conversations.
Last fall, grad student Alfred MacDonald got in some hot water when he made a factual statement about Islam in a conversation with fellow students. When one of the students mentioned that she was engaged to a Muslim, MacDonald said it troubled him that, as a bisexual, he could be killed in 10 Muslim countries.
Astonishingly, he was called into the chair of the department’s office to be lectured and warned that “this kind of thing will not be tolerated”.
What kind of thing? “Making derogatory comments” and “trying to make other graduate students feel terrible for our emotional attachments.”
As if that weren’t incredible enough, when he wasn’t immediately repentant, she instructed him that if he “didn’t understand,” he would be referred to the “Behavior Intervention Team” (George Orwell, is that you?). The Behavior Intervention Team is “trained on talking to people about what’s appropriate or what isn’t.”
Just let that sink in for a moment. From the Philosophy department chair.
From the transcript of the conversation, department chair Eve Browning made repeated arguments in an attempt to get MacDonald to change his behavior. At one point, she said about his comments, “Those are things that would get you fired if you were working in my office. The Islam comment would get you fired.”
Surprised, MacDonald asked, “Would it really get me fired to say that I could be killed somewhere?”
“In that situation as you’ve described it, absolutely yes.”
“How?” he wondered.
Inspiring further intellectual curiosity, she said, “Don’t even ask. It’s clear you’re not taking my word for it. I don’t care to convince you. If I can’t persuade you that it’s in your interest to behave in ways that other people don’t find offensive and objectionable, then at least I’ve done my job.”
“Well I know that it’s in my interest,” MacDonald responded. “I’m just trying to understand the reasoning.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Well, this is a truthseeking discipline!” he noted with frustration.
“In the philosophy department, there was an overwhelming sense that everyone wasn’t saying everything they were thinking. Very few people — students or faculty — were direct with their complaints about virtually anything,” he told The Fix. “… The graduate students were reserved to an unusual degree. … It felt like I was in high school again; people should be direct, straightforward, and transparent with each other to the extent that this is socially possible, and this was the opposite of what I experienced.”
We’ve all heard so many absurd and appalling instances coming from college campuses in recent years. Empathy tents and safe spaces and, oh yeah, students at Evergreen State College effectively holding the president of the college hostage are all things deserving of ridicule.
But there are a number of thing particularly troubling about this instance. For one, someone actually reported comments a student made in a private conversation to campus authorities–and then they summoned him for potentially disciplinary action. For factual statements he made. And this was the Philosophy department (I thought philosophy meant “love of wisdom,” but perhaps I’m mistaken). How did this college get to the place where this employee’s actions were the correct ones?
I remember watching a film called The Lives of Others, which depicted life in Communist East Berlin before the Wall fell. There was a scene in which two people wanted to speak freely, so they left the apartment to speak outside in case they were being recorded by the authorities (which, in that instance, they were).
Secondly, I was struck by the emphasis by Browning on behavior. That’s all that seemed to matter–that the behavior matched their standards of conduct (in this case, not offending anyone). So, if we’re all trained monkeys and do exactly what we’re told (and don’t worry your pretty little head about understanding the reasons, pumpkin–not even in the philosophy department), then we’ll have, er, what did Ms. Browning say, “success”?
What great lament I feel that I was not exposed to her advice sooner. To think, I’ve spent so many years wasting my time on spiritual and character development, when all I needed was for someone to tell me which levers to press and which boxes to check in order to have “success.” Success according to whom? If I may quote Ms. Browning: “Don’t even ask.”
We’d better start asking, and soon, if we don’t want a generation of people who can’t (and don’t want to be bothered to) think for themselves, but would rather wear shirts reminding them to “Obey.” Oh, wait…