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Rethinking the “hypersensitive” student

November 18th, 2015 Posted in Education

Hypersensitivity isn’t the only problem with today’s campuses 

“Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities,” reads The Atlantic’s latest feature, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” “A movement is arising … to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

It’s a sentiment that, as a student at the University of Toronto, immediately struck a chord with me. That’s because earlier this year, I did something that offended a lot of people.

I wrote an article for the campus newspaper against the use of trigger warnings – notices that a post contains information that some may find traumatizing – in academic settings. Specifically, I didn’t think they should be applied to course syllabi. It seems dangerous to label academic material in a way that means students can choose whether or not to engage with it, regardless of its merit.

The article received a strong negative response. One commenter wrote, “You are really lucky to have this point of view, because it means you have not experienced trauma in your life to such an extent that reminders of painful memories overcome you” – it was a view shared by several students over various social-media platforms.

In the aftermath, what was hard to take was not that there were those who disagreed with me, but the way in which they were choosing to do so – the strength of their opposition without seeming to engage with the nuances of what I had written, and the anger at my having spoken to something outside my “lived experience.”

It’s these sorts of incidents that have some writers drawing the conclusion that our campuses are becoming oversensitive. The cover of The Atlantic declares that the rise of the “new political correctness” is “ruining education.”

Such claims are, however, an oversimplification.

For almost every person who struck out against what I had written, there was one who agreed – advocates of “free speech,” who praised it as a stab against too-liberal “PC” students.

When I reflect on my experience, I don’t find myself looking at a campus dominated by the “overly sensitive” or the “politically correct,” though there are some to whom the label might apply – what I see is a mosaic of highly polarized groups.

Ideally, and perhaps naively, I had intended my article to prompt an open discussion on the merits of, and problems with, the use of the trigger warning in our classrooms. Instead, I found myself vilified by those who felt what I had written was attacking something I didn’t understand, or championed by those who saw me as putting the oversensitive in their place.

This reaction is, to my mind, reflective of the state of today’s campuses. Not, as some might suggest, full of hypersensitive students unable to deal with difficult or upsetting concepts. Instead, made up of disparate groups who, instead of engaging each other in conversation, exist in opposition to one another.

This is not a world of students who are scared of ideas – they attack them, consider themselves at war with them and, in doing so, one another. The admittedly idyllic concept of rational academic discussion is all too easily tossed aside in favour of fiercely held debates, where a person’s character is fair game.

It’s a world where moral aspersions are all too easy to make. With discussions about highly contentious issues taking place more and more frequently online, it doesn’t take much to make the leap from “I disagree with how you feel about that issue” to “I think less of you as a person for your opinion.” This is not a climate that encourages communication between differently minded students.

This is not a situation unique to university classrooms, but it is one with the ability to limit academic discussion. In such an environment, it seems inevitable that students will spend their time with those with whom they are already in agreement, and engage with those who disagree only through the medium of angry dissent.

It is a highly polarized academic universe, and one that seems to feature many echo chambers, but rarely a broader, far-reaching conversation.

By SARAH NIEDOBA

The Globe and Mail

 

 

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