Saturday, August 27, 2016

Self-Parodist Attacks U. Chicago "Safe Spaces" Letter, Pratfalls

Vox has a new essay by Kevin Gannon about that mean old letter from the University of Chicago from Dean of Students Jay Ellison rejecting outright "safe spaces" and other shibboleths adopted elsewhere in the country by other universities. "Safe spaces" and no-platforming being the opposite of free inquiry and free speech, they comprise a prima facie antithesis of what the university stands for. Gannon comes to tell us they are all wrong. This is really a power trip, you see:
I’ve been teaching on the college level for 18 years, and I also direct my university’s Teaching and Learning Center, so I’ve been following the debate over "trigger warnings," "safe spaces," and the purported scourge of "political correctness" for quite a while. Despite the apocalyptic tone that often accompanies screeds against supposedly coddled students and their trigger-free safe spaces, the issues involved strike me as far more complicated than the overheated rhetoric suggests.

As with any conversation about teaching and learning, context and nuance matter greatly — but they’re not present in most of the critics’ attempted takedowns of trigger warnings (better called "content advisories," in my estimation) or safe spaces.
"Nuance", of course, has nothing to do with shouting down or outright censoring dissenting views, thanks to Title IX rules engineered to suppress anything that stresses students. The man pays lip service to academic freedom (emboldening mine)...
Academic freedom is the sine qua non of higher education. Students ought to be challenged, even made uncomfortable, in order to learn in deep and meaningful ways. And, of course, collegiate education is where students must encounter perspectives different from their own. No one who genuinely believes in higher education is going to dispute any of that. And that’s what this dean and the anti-trigger-warnings, no-safe-spaces crowd are counting on — that the surface veneer of reasonableness in these admonitions to the class of 2020 will obscure the rotten pedagogy and logical fallacies that infest this entire screed.
... but then proceeds to show he lacks even the slightest grasp of what logical fallacies might actually look like — because his essay is shot through with them. Indeed, it's a stew of politically-minded cant, name-calling in service of academic intellectual rigor mortis. Stealing from Facebook friend Pat Kambhampati, a few particulars, with additional editing and annotations of my own:

  1. Question the messenger instead of the message.
    Even the timing of this missive raises questions. Why go full blast against this purported scourge of wimpy, touchy-feely educational malpractice right up front? Is there a safe-spaces petition percolating in the ranks of the first-years? Are the dean and the university worried that people will lose respect for the almighty maroon if they didn’t stake out the tough-guy intellectual turf from the beginning? Did they sit around and ask themselves what Milton Friedman would have done?
  2. Dismiss the arguments because the other person lacks the correct Lived Experience.
    The greatest threat to genuine academic freedom comes from within. Coddled students who are used to getting trophies for everything don’t want to engage with stuff they don’t like, so they wrap themselves in entitlement and demand trigger warnings to protect their feelz. Or they want safe spaces to hide from the big, bad world. Or they want the university to cancel a lecture because the speaker is from the wrong demographic. And if universities don’t make a stand against this foolishness, Western Civilization itself will collapse.

    That’s a comforting narrative to the academic elite who feel like they’re faced with an existential crisis. Rather than seeing themselves as clinging to the last vestiges of the 1950s, they get to paint themselves as staunch advocates of all that is good and worthy. And there’s an audience for this fiction — people still read Allan Bloom. But as critiques of inequality have shown time and again, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
    What this really amounts to is a total failure to address the arguments raised by the U. Chicago letter. Gannon here claims that so long as you're the right aggrieved group, it's perfectly acceptable to demand protection from foreign or even hostile ideas. Is the point of the university to teach critical thinking skills, or orthodoxy? Gannon knows which side he falls on.
  3. Claim empathy for one group of people. Then any attacks are attacks upon a special group of people.
    If I’m teaching historical material that describes war crimes like mass rape, shouldn’t I disclose to my students what awaits them in these texts? If I have a student suffering from trauma due to a prior sexual assault, isn’t a timely caution the empathetic and humane thing for me to do?
    Sure, if the point is to infantilize them.
  4. Donald Trump is the reason we can't have nice things:
    Sure, Charles Murray has a right to his views. But is it okay for us to use student fees paid in part by African-American students to bring him to campus, fĂȘte him, and give him a rostrum to tell those students they’re doomed by genetics to be inferior to whites? Well, he makes a strong argument and isn’t bound by conventional "niceties." Yes, that’s true. But that’s also the reason people claim to like Donald Trump, and I don’t see universities lining up to bring him in as a guest lecturer.
  5. Because, virtue signaling:
    As a faculty member, I would be enormously dismayed if my dean sent this letter to my incoming students. Because now they’ll come into my class already having received a clear message about what my institution seems to value — and it isn’t them.

    The Chicago letter reeks of arrogance, of a sense of entitlement, of an exclusionary mindset — in other words, the very things it seeks to inveigh against. It’s not about academic freedom; it’s about power. Know your place, and acknowledge ours, it tells the students. We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it. And professors and students are thus handcuffed to a high-stakes ideological creed. Do it this way, in the name of all that is holy and true in the academy. There is no room here for empathy, for student agency, or for faculty discretion.
    Yes, the "entitlement" is, demanding faculty and students have or develop some grownup resilience instead of acting like spoiled children. What Gannon risibly mocks as "Do it this way" means, be willing to consider and even adopt new ideas, or even those you may find repulsive for whatever reason.
  6. You misspelled "enraged":
    Ableism, misogyny, racism, elitism, and intellectual sloppiness deserve to be called out. That’s not a threat, that’s our students doing what they’re supposed to as engaged citizens of an academic community.
    Again, so long as you're one of the right complainers, censorship and ideological blinders are just dandy.
Summarizing, it strikes me likely that someone like Gannon hasn't gone through the full Laura Kipnis treatment, which is why he's so strident. He appears to me to be pretty young; give it time.

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