Challenging Student Opinions

By Darby Rourick

Some students go to college because their parents want them to, some because they want to get a good job, and some because they are not sure what else to do. Ideally, all students are also motivated to go to college because they enjoy learning. Higher education takes time and effort; however, those efforts are rewarded in so many different ways. College prepares students for careers, but it also encourages students to think differently and to think deeper, to grow intellectually by challenging them and exposing them to new ideas. 

Lately though, this challenge has come under fire from students. The issue with challenging students comes in the discomfort that students feel. Students are claiming that they should not be forced to feel discomfort because campuses should be safe spaces. Truly, it is important for campuses to be safe for students. No student should be concerned about their welfare while on campus. However, this increased attention to student safety has gone to the extreme. Concern for students’ mental health is entirely justified, but this concern is being abused. There is a difference between a student who cannot handle the material because it causes them significant emotional trauma and a student who feels uncomfortable having their world view challenged. As Professor Edward Schlosser explained in an article for Vox, “The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that’s simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher’s formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best.”

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt highlight many examples of students challenging universities over emotional and mental discomfort in their article for The Atlantic. In order to deal with these issues, universities have begun to institute stricter policies that police speech in order to protect students. For example, Lukianoff and Haidt found that “the deans and department chairs at the 10 University of California system schools were presented by administrators at faculty leader-training sessions with examples of microaggressions.” The micoraggressions they were warned against using included “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” 

Sadly, the increased policing of speech on campus is damaging students and what they learn. Education involves questions. The Socratic Method is a significant part of education. Socrates forced individuals to examine their own beliefs to discover if they were rational. He encouraged people not to blindly accept what had been represented to them as the truth, but to ask questions. Many universities strive to do the same. Their goal is not to tell students what to think, but to help them think critically and encourage them to think for themselves.

In September, during a town hall meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, President Barack Obama cautioned college students against becoming insulated from controversy, “I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say, …. [is] not the way we learn either.” Obama said he was concerned with students being coddled. He explained that by listening to views that were different from their own, students would be better able to support their opinions. The challenge of listening to opposing views can push students to clarify the reasons why they believe what they do. 

Ultimately, students are hurting themselves by refusing to listen to new information or tolerate different points of view. Professors are in a difficult position as they try to navigate how to teach students and continue to support student safety. Going to college should be a life-changing experience for students. College should help students form their opinions and beliefs while also teaching them facts. This might be uncomfortable at times, but in order to continue to help students, that discomfort is necessary. Students need to learn to justify their beliefs and opinions, but that very likely will not happen if their teachers never ask them to.

Darby Rourick is a senior at Saint Joseph’s University majoring in English and philosophy, and minoring in Medieval Renaissance and Reformation Studies. Saint Joseph’s University is home to the Phi of Pennsylvania Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.