Tuesday, August 25, 2015

You SHOULD Get Offended in College

A group of incoming freshmen at Duke University has refused to read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, the summer reading selection for the Class of 2019, because the LGBT themes run afoul of their Christian beliefs. I have never read the book and actually had not even heard of it before coming across this controversy at Duke. Whether or not I had read the material, my advice is the same.

Stop it.

I'm uncomfortable with the concept of Hell. I get upset and often cry when hearing about emotionally abusive relationships. I think the Holocaust was abhorrent and the genocides that are continuing around the world today are heartbreaking and the photographs are difficult to see. I get unfairly frustrated with people who have different financial or child raising or political priorities than me. I am never going to be a Buddhist or a socialist or a Donald Trump supporter or a NRA member or a lesbian. Does that mean that I should not have to think about and learn about these people and these ideas and these events . . . that I should be exempt from acknowledging their existence? If I claim to be interested in higher education, or simply an engaged member of my community, I think not.

Stop hiding from ideas that make you uncomfortable or feel awkward or (gasp!) offended. I'm sorry that your parents coddled you up to the age of eighteen and told you it was okay to shield yourself from differing opinions. I'm sorry that you do not see your college years as the time to meet all different kinds of people and hear all different kinds of ideas. I'm sorry that you do not yet see yourself as an adult operating in a world that will not cater to your views at all times. I'm sorry that you CHOSE to attend this particular private institution of higher learning and are now put off by the expectations placed on you before you even begin. And I'm sorry that if your convictions are so intense, you don't see this as an opportunity to engage others in discussion instead of crying at the supposed offense.

And I'm not just speaking (well, typing) to the conservative Christians at Duke here. In fact, it seems that a subset of college students from all religions and political leanings and family backgrounds are now inclined to build a protective cocoon of happy thoughts while at school. We have warnings about possible "trigger words" before debates on sensitive topics and "safe rooms" filled with coloring books and cookies to which people can escape if they become troubled. The Great Gatsby is not to be discussed because it could make certain groups uncomfortable with its misogyny. Huckleberry Finn is avoided because of racial stereotypes and language that unfortunately was common in Twain's time. At my alma mater, the showing of the movie American Sniper on campus was postponed because some students were upset. Conservative politicians or pundits are shouted down or uninvited altogether because some students do not want to hear a different worldview. Students at Berkeley protested the notion of liberal atheist Bill Maher speaking on campus because of statements he made about Islam (kind of hurts when he turns his mockery of religion on anyone other than the Christians, huh?).

It's no wonder that comedians like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld have shared in interviews that they no longer perform on college campuses because the students are OFFENDED BY EVERYTHING. It seems that too many of today's coeds have grown up believing that they have the right to be protected from everything that makes them uncomfortable.

I attended every possible lecture on campus when I was in college. I listened and if I didn't like what I heard, I chose not to clap. Sometimes I even made posters to express an opposing viewpoint during rallies. But, I wanted to hear all perspectives. If nothing else, learning more about the people with whom you disagree can give you additional ammunition for your cause (intellectually speaking, of course).

You are supposed to have those late-night dorm room conversations with the guy who claims that communism will work "but it just hasn't been tried in its true form yet." You are supposed to be aggressively greeted by the Jews for Jesus who ask if you have found true purpose in your life when all you wanted was to stop in the student union for a soda. And you should talk to the guy who argues with a passion that it will take 400 years from the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to achieve racial equality in our country because that's how long slavery existed here. And question the women who paid for a full-page ad in the student newspaper and then used that space to print the name of every undergraduate male under the heading "Potential Rapists!" (My fellow Terps remember that campus scandal in 1993?) And read works by atheists and Christians and wiccans. Go to your friend's movie night at the Baptist Student Union and for Passover dinner at the Hillel. Attend a panel discussion on curriculum priorities sponsored by the Asian American Student Union. Listen to both sides of an abortion debate.

This is the time to have your core values challenged and to debate them with passion. Once confronted with opposing viewpoints, you may come out on the other side with your convictions even more solid than before. Wonderful! If you feel so strongly about your beliefs and are grounded in them, why would you be threatened by a little dissent? Or, you may find that your perceptions of people and circumstances have changed. Either way, the process is important and amazing.

I'm not arguing that young men and women don't come to college having already endured some difficult, even traumatic, experiences. I get that. I've walked through some stuff in my own life and with friends. We should never create an environment that is intentionally upsetting or that belittles a group or individual for no other reason than to do just that. But we need to learn to face difficult people and circumstances, to stand up and get engaged when our integrity and beliefs are tested, to be willing to accept that there are other ways of thinking.

It may be that by the time my kids get to college, if they decide to go that route, they will attend class in an emotionally sanitized setting, memorize items for a test, watch their peers cry foul if a hint of discord is apparent, and shuffle along to graduation. That's depressing. But if that is the case, I hope they still find outlets through which they can hear conflicting ideas and take part in uncomfortable conversations. I refuse to raise them with blinders on or with a fear of difference and dissent.

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