I think President Peter Salovey’s recent email announcing changes aimed at “a more inclusive Yale” has bought only a pause in unrest on campus.
Rewarding any behavior encourages more of it. The Next Yale movement protested and demanded, and the Yale administration gave lots of money to its causes and intellectual ground to its views.
The movement says racism is bad, as if that’s controversial. It claims on the basis of uncheckable “lived experiences” that racism not only exists at Yale — a reasonable assumption for any large institution — but is everywhere at Yale. The movement then pushes solutions that it, as the self-appointed arbiter of racism on campus, knows are necessary to correct the problem.
As others have written on these pages recently, it is difficult for many people with a sense that something is wrong with this movement to speak up. Being against those who are against racism — and who claim it pervades Yale’s culture — makes one, of course, a bedfellow of racists.
But agreeing, as everyone does, that racism is wrong is different from agreeing with the worldview and goals of those who now claim a monopoly on opposition to and knowledge about racism. And that worldview and those goals, if they become Yale’s, will harm our school.
This movement has lauded a student who screamed at a teacher that she wanted not an intellectual space, but a “home.” The movement has demanded that its subjectivist definition of racism be conditioned into students and faculty. Some of its members have cursed at students of color who disagree with its message. And the movement has asked that students be required to take classes — normally forums for rigorous debate — that it seems eerily sure will cure them of their troglodytic views.
Yale administrators have been able to avoid certain ill-advised changes to University policy because they have administrative power. But it does not matter how many times administrators tout Yale’s unshakeable commitment to free speech if debate at Yale becomes intolerant, uncivil and emotional. Yale can remain technically tolerant and still lose the sort of discourse it ought to encourage.
Yale needs a campaign of administrators, faculty and students against the aspects of the movement which, if it advances, will harm the University’s intellectual life. A few points need making:
First, the University’s mission of pursuing truth through debate means that “emotional and intellectual safety” are secondary concerns. The right of people to speak their minds and the charity afforded to arguments made in good faith are paramount. Further, using emotions instead of reason for argument is shoddy. This does not mean telling students who feel hurt to simply stop feeling hurt. It means that personal feelings ought not be permitted to prevent discussion of difficult issues. Students asking to be kept safe from discomforting ideas are making requests opposed, as such, to the University’s ideals.
Second, even if yelling at faculty is permitted by Yale’s free speech policy, it is disgusting. Our teachers at Yale are venerable scholars. We are here to learn from them and with them. To treat them with disrespect is to demonstrate contempt for the University’s mission.
Third, Yale’s pluralism — the same pluralism without which some of the members of Next Yale might by now have received expulsion notices — is anchored in specific virtues: the courage of people to speak up, honesty in thought and debate, reverence for a common intellectual project and a belief in the American ideal of a society based on philosophical claims, rather than a tribe or ethnicity.
I imagine that many members of Yale’s faculty do not think it their role to simply impart their opinions to students. But this admirable restraint is self-undermining if applied to all matters. To wit: if professors do not enter the battle for Yale’s intellectual culture against the recent protestors, they may someday be unable to teach students what they want to teach. They will be shouted down in class, accused of “bias,” will come under pressure to drop controversial parts of their curricula, etc. The professors I know are brave people who would never cave to such demands. But that won’t matter if students lack the integrity or curiosity to take their classes in the first place.
Yale’s leaders should fight to save it from the cheap authoritarianism of “intellectual and emotional safety.” Otherwise the storms of “progress” will conquer our beloved school, leaving copies of the Woodward Report fluttering in the wind.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .