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The Fight for Critical Thinking

Travis Brock
Director of Business Development

I got my bachelors degree from 1997-2001 and my masters degree from 2004-2007. In that short amount of time, as I reflect, I noticed a subtle change in my university experience. During my masters degree trigger warnings were being used more frequently. It was engrained in us, as students, that potentially distressing information and material be given a warning. It was so engrained that I even used a trigger warning on my last blog post a couple days ago about Deadpool and, as an adjunct, I told my students to use trigger warnings.

During my bachelors degree ideas were more frequently exchanged without much repercussion while during my masters degree, information had to given a warning. Safe spaces were given priority over the creation and evolution of new ideas, concepts, and thoughts. Most ideas that went against mainstream were pushed aside. What happened?

A couple theories:

  • Ward Churchill, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado, was judged and eventually fired for his essay written in 2001. Right or wrong, academic freedom took a huge hit with this incident. Since then, several other professors have been ousted for their ideas. Professors were told they can have ideas, to a certain acceptable level. Limits could not be pushed without punishment.
  • Helicopter parents have been increasingly swarming college campuses since the early 2000s. They are the parents of kids who had to have parent permission slips to watch PG movies in schools, to participate in sex education classes, or talk about religion or evolution in class. Ideas and education were guarded! Anything potentially hurtful or outside of the child’s safe space was pushed away by parents. As kids went on to college, either the parents continued their information-guarding helicopter lifestyle or their children picked up that they could guard against concepts that butted-heads with their own.
  • The rise of political correctness has labeled certain buzzwords, images, gatherings, events, names, and ideas as taboo and should be shunned from society. Historical events and figures that had a particular blemish associated with it are to be placed in a dark corner never to be heard from again.
  • The internet has given us huge amounts of information. At the same time it provided a social platform and area for like-minded people to express their ideals. The internet created a safe space, a little bubble, that made it easy for users to protect themselves from others’ ideas or gave validation to their own thought processes.
  • Our ideas and learning and what can be taught can be taken to the courts. If someone doesn’t like your facts or theories, take them to court to have someone else rule as to whether or not the ideas should even be discussed. According to the National Center for Science and Education three of the top ten major court cases about evolution and creationism took place after 2000. Nine of them took place in my lifetime.

Academic freedom, free thought and speech, and critical thinking have been diluted for more popular mainstream thought and safe thinking. This dilution over the last decade or two has limited exploration and evolution of larger concepts and education. I am not the only one who has noticed.

College and university administrators and others are not only noticing, but have started to retaliate. Over the last several years a couple administrators have been outspoken about commitment to academic freedom while pushing back on the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces to allow students, staff, and faculty to speak openly and freely.

University of Chicago’s Dean of Students sent a welcome letter to the class of 2020 with a message preparing students to be uncomfortable in their education. As many know, learning is not always a comfortable process and can often be painful! Even the University’s student newspaper tweeted the letter.

The Journal, a student-run paper at Queen’s University, ran an article in 2011 titled “University, not kindergarten” stated they felt a “culture of control will impede quality of Queen’s education if left unchecked.”

And in 2015, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University wrote a blog titled “This is not a day care, it’s a university!” where he provides an example of a student who felt victimized by a campus sermon. While I would love to post the entire blog, here are a few paragraphs:

Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic. Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims. Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them “feel bad” about themselves, is a “hater,” a “bigot,” an “oppressor,” and a “victimizer.”

I have a message for this young man and all others who care to listen. That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience. An altar call is supposed to make you feel bad. It is supposed to make you feel guilty. The goal of many a good sermon is to get you to confess your sins—not coddle you in your selfishness. The primary objective of the Church and the Christian faith is your confession, not your self-actualization.”

Here is the president’s closing statement:

At OKWU, we teach you to be selfless rather than self-centered. We are more interested in you practicing personal forgiveness than political revenge. We want you to model interpersonal reconciliation rather than foment personal conflict. We believe the content of your character is more important than the color of your skin. We don’t believe that you have been victimized every time you feel guilty and we don’t issue “trigger warnings” before altar calls.

Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a “safe place”, but rather, a place to learn: to learn that life isn’t about you, but about others; that the bad feeling you have while listening to a sermon is called guilt; that the way to address it is to repent of everything that’s wrong with you rather than blame others for everything that’s wrong with them. This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up.

This is not a day care. This is a university.

Is it time for higher ed to take notice and take a side? Will others follow? While our society may have slowly placed controls on what can be said, learned, thought, and explored our students may be the ones to suffer!

As with most of my blogs, I leave you with two relevant clips to bring the point home brought to you by our own culture’s button pushers at South Park. Even after all this, I am still hesitating whether to write a trigger warning!

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