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College of Comfort; Edgy U
How to solve one of the problems of higher ed
Humans value security; we also seek out novelty. We like to feel safe and comfortable; we also like to be stimulated and challenged. As we make our way through life, we try to find a balance between these two sets of desires and values.
This is especially true in the subset of life known as education. If we are never challenged, we don't learn anything; but if we never feel secure, we're too distracted to learn.
Those responsible for providing the education have to find their own balance. In every society, one important function of education is fundamentally conservative: to transmit that society's essential values to the next generation. But successful societies meanwhile figure out how to push the envelope, to encourage innovation and experimentation. The best education is conservatively progressive, or progressively conservative.
Where on the spectrum between conservatism and progressivism education ought to lie has been the subject of controversy for millennia. Socrates was executed for pushing the boundary too far—for corrupting the youth of Athens. Teachers and professors in America in the 1950s were fired for discussing "un-American" topics with their students.
Of late, complaints have come from the opposite direction, from those who think schools and colleges don't challenge students enough. The critics decry demands, typically from students, that they not be made to feel uncomfortable. In the name of inclusivity, administrators often heed the demands and siilence those who upset the students.
In public elementary and secondary schools, where students are a captive audience, there is no easy answer to the question of where the balance between security and novelty, between comfort and discomfort, should lie.
In colleges, though, there is an easy answer. Colleges could simply advertise which camp they fall into: the camp of comfort or the camp of edginess.
Come to the College of Comfort and you'll never be upset, would say those in the former camp. Come to Edgy U and we'll send you home crying every semester, would promise the others.
This is a bit of a caricature, to be sure. No college would voluntarily place itself in the first camp. And no college in the second camp could reliably deliver on its promise, if only because the shock effect would wear off after a semester or two.
The approach is worth thinking about nonetheless. In fact, dozens of colleges have placed themselves in the second camp by endorsing the so-called Chicago principles, which affirm a commitment to free speech articulated by the University of Chicago.
But the pledge is easier to sign than to keep. Most colleges are trying to increase their diversity, by which they mean including individuals from groups not traditionally represented. They understand that if students from those groups feel uncomfortable, they might not stay. So the colleges are constantly tempted to tone down the edginess and dial up the comfort.
Nor does it help much if some or even most of the students in the groups alleging discomfort actually want to be challenged. Social media these days are on a hair trigger; a single complaint can resonate and frighten almost any administration into appeasing the complainants. An administration that does not capitulate risks being tagged as racist or fill-in-the-blank-phobic. Most college administrators like to think of themselves as at least mildly progressive, and such toxic labels don't rest easily on their consciences and reputations, let alone the bottom line of their universities.
There is hope, however. In certain respects this is a problem that will solve itself. Colleges of Comfort will attract students and donors for whom feeling welcome is a priority. Edgy U’s will appeal to the stouter souls, who don't mind being called old-fashioned and insensitive.
Higher education in America is by no means a free-market paradise. It is the rare college or university that does not accept public money in some form or another, whether research grants from government agencies or federal student loans. Yet there remains, or can remain, a free market in approaches to knowledge.
To quote that unlikely (and insincere) avatar of choice, Mao Zedong: Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools contend.