The Academy And The Right To Be Comfortable

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, Harvey Silvergate describes a recent panel discussion hosted by Smith College President Kathleen McCartney for Smith College alumni. The panel was titled: “Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts.” It was, reported Silvergate, “an apparent effort to address the intolerance of diverse opinions that prevails on many campuses.”

Sadly, President McCartney ended up apologizing to students and faculty who were “hurt” and made to feel “unsafe” by one of the panelist’s remarks.

In his WSJ commentary, Silvergate objects to the rampant “hostility to free speech” in the American academy and warns that “[a] whole generation of students soon will have imbibed the warped notions of justice and entitlement now handed down as dogma in the universities.”

He is right to object, though it would be better if the liberals who dominate the academy would have the fortitude to stand up for the core liberal values of free expression and tolerance of ideas. And Silvergate is correct to worry that our young people leave college with an understanding of entitlement entirely unmoored from the classical liberal concepts of justice, right and duty.

But Americans should be worried about another consequence of the insistence in the academy that no one’s feelings should be hurt and that everyone can decide for themselves whether they are entitled to be offended. We are raising a generation of young people who believe they have a legal right to be comfortable. Discomfort is now cause for mandated apologies and legal causes of action. Whatever happened to the quite sensible idea that learning to deal with discomfort is an important part of one’s upbringing and education? After all, once our young people leave the protective cocoons of home and school, they will be faced with a whole lot of discomforts.

A century ago young men aspired to discomfort and young women did the same if they could escape their benevolent protectors. It was important to their training for manhood and, as it turned out, to the campaign for equal rights. Two world wars were won by young people willing and able to endure unimaginable hardships. It is a tragic irony that the rights and liberties for which they fought and died have been contorted by comfortable academics into a right for their students to be free from hurt feelings.

I am reminded of a friend’s tenure as a girl’s basketball coach cut short when she urged the young teenagers to “get your butts down the floor.” Better to give the little angels trophies for participation then to have their coach suggest that the game requires a little effort. In my youth the last award you wanted to win at the state basketball tournament was for sportsmanship. That meant you had come in dead last. We were there to win and winning required not poor sportsmanship, but a willingness to get our tired butts down the floor before the opposition could make a layup.

When they leave their bubble of academic life our sensitized, caring college graduates are going to encounter an often insensitive, uncaring, competitive world. There will be no arbiters of acceptable conduct to appeal to. They will be on their own with skins so thin they will be unable to cope. With one son in college and two daughters soon to follow, I hope they will each encounter some teacher or administrator willing to say ‘buck up,’ ‘get a grip,’ or ‘stop whining.’ I also hope they will be caring, sensitive adults. I’m more confident about the latter than the former.