Universities should not be safe places. The battle of ideas should make them free spaces.
My final year at University, one of my courses was on contemporary philosophy. We discussed Rawls, Nozick. I recall leading a seminar discussion on Dworkin while I argued against utilitarians. Feminism and abortion, Peter Singer and infanticide. Passionate arguments with people that consumed books and fired off their own ideas at each other. This is what we did before Twitter.
There is much discussion about making Universities “safe places” for students. Not inviting certain speakers, reading certain books, or freely discussing certain topics which may trouble some students’ susceptibilities.
Yet open free discussion helped me get the most out of my education. The tutorial and seminar system developed an ability to stand up for your arguments. Years before I felt comfortable discussing atheism with family, I could here. Talking as an equal though from a state education with a class full of privately educated students.
I remember seconding a debate society discussion on morality – not wearing a suit. Quite sacrilegious. I explained this was not a moral failing on my part, but I made the choice to buy books over attire thus was skint. Clothing ourselves with knowledge is dressing for a civilised age. Sharpening that knowledge is to be challenged, to be forged in the fire of heated debate.
Do not garb students from debate by wrapping them in cotton wool, so depriving them of the world of ideas that they can sharpen their teeth on. There are opponents and enemies to be had. The ability to discern who they are is a vital life skill for University students to develop, and how to challenge them. They do not need to be sheltered by those choosing on their behalf who they are for them. It is a form of control no one should want – one should want to fly rather than live in a cocoon safe from the monsters whose ideas we need to know how to slay.
To be an active citizen is to wage eternal conflict in the body politic. There will be people – groups and individuals – that want to change things in civil society. Knowing who to shrill for and who to counter has an impact beyond imagining in the corridors of power we never get to walk down.
We need articulate, determined citizens to fight the good fight in civil society with a megaphone or a keyboard, rather than with violence or repression of others voices. Not shrinking violets that are concerned with how they feel about the jousting, the back and forth of political discourse. There is too much at stake not to play the game, let alone not know how to play it well.
Students need to be taught how to think, stand up for themselves, develop a self-worth. They need to know there are many ideas out there and how to critically assess them.
University is not a safe place. It is a dangerous place, where ideas from different cultures and history will come at you. Do not hide students from political, philosophical or religious arguments.
Arm them to do the battle of ideas in the global communication age safely. This needs to start way before university.
Anything less than that, is to betray their education.
The speech bubble picture comes from another blog post on the subject here.
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog