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Academic Freedom Belongs To The Easily Offended, Too

01/12/2016 05:52 EST | Updated 01/12/2017 05:12 EST
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School education scene: students throwing papers at teacher

Dear Prof. Michael Persinger:

As a life-long civil libertarian and a pain in the butt to those who would quell freedom of expression, I feel the need to converse with you.

I understand that you are being disciplined by Laurentian University, where you hold tenure, for requiring your undergraduate students to sign a contract as a condition of taking your course. I also understand that you warn them that they may be offended by certain topics and words that are likely to arise during the course. And you tell them that if they are going to be offended, they should go elsewhere.

Really? If I had had the privilege of being a student in your course when I was an undergraduate, I never would have signed your contract. How could I guarantee not to be offended by words, images or topics? How could I prepare myself in such a way as to remove my emotional responses to things likely to evoke emotional responses? I could not sign your contract.

However, I would also refuse to leave your course. I have never expected, nor will I ever expect, to be insulated from the world around me. I hope to be continually challenged to think about issues in new and troubling ways. And I am perfectly prepared to be offended by words and concepts I do not like, which embarrass me and which make me uncomfortable. And as a rights holder myself, I expect to retain the right and the ability to complain and to argue.

While I think it inexcusable that you are facing discipline for what you did, I also would like to know why you did it. Were you trying to insulate yourself from students whom you might embarrass or shock? As a professor who encourages critical thinking, I don't believe that you get to do this.

We have heard so much recently about students who want a "safe space" in which to learn, when what they seem to mean is that they refuse to face any unpleasant new ideas or contrary opinions. Even learning that there may be differing points of view or theories appears to be beyond the scope of such students.

"While I would fight to the death for you to employ whatever language you want to use in your classes, I would also fight for your students' rights to be offended when they don't like what they hear."

But professors?

Could we be on the cusp of seeing a new wave from those in authority who would like to be protected from the noxious views of students? Could professors become so concerned about students who complain that they attempt to forestall these objections by indemnifying themselves with contracts and agreements?

Where is critical thinking when we need it? Academic freedom implies that those who are in the academy, learners and teachers alike, are free to disagree. And they may not be terribly polite when they do so.

A few years ago, a colleague of mine was taken to task by a student who was offended when she stated that every religion, including her own, has something a little "crazy" in it. The student believed that her own religion was eminently sensible.

I suggested that the next time the topic arose, my colleague might try saying that every religion has something in it that is a matter of faith or belief, a matter that cannot be logically proven or stand up to scientific reasoning. I did not suggest this change in order to protect students from offence, nor my colleague from their complaints. I wanted to help clarify the meaning in the arguments.

What if a student were offended by being told that her religion was not rational? I would suggest that this might be the beginning of a great lesson.

And if a student doesn't like a professor's jokes? Challenge them to come up with better jokes. But please, Prof. Persinger, while I would fight to the death for you to employ whatever language and humour you want to use in your classes, I would also fight for your students' rights to be offended and to complain to you when they don't like what they hear.

This is what an exchange of ideas looks like.

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