Is College a “Home”?

I don’t think I have any wisdom to offer on the controversy brewing at Yale University, where some students are outraged at what they perceive to be the lack of institutional response to racism on campus. But I think it raises some important questions about the nature of college education, particularly at schools that advertise themselves as being both “liberal arts” and “residential.”

Silliman College
Silliman College, Yale University – Wikimedia

One of the flash points in the controversy is a conflict between students at Silliman College (one of Yale’s undergraduate residential communities) and its master and associate master, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, who last month refused to ban potentially offensive Halloween costumes. (Partly in wake of allegations that a fraternity at Yale had barred women of color from a Halloween party.) “I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours,” wrote Erika Christakis in an email to students. “Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” That response sparked an open letter from upset students and an ugly confrontation with Nicholas Christakis.

I have to admit: at first glance, I tended to sympathize with student concerns, but more so with the Christakises’ defense of free speech. It’s all too easy to dismiss this as just another instance of students wanting to clamp down on free expression, especially of unpopular viewpoints. But while Yale was my graduate alma mater, I’ve been away from that community for a long time, and I surely don’t fully grasp the larger context. For example, one Yale senior wrote (as quoted this morning in Inside Higher Ed) that

The protests are not really about Halloween costumes or a frat party… They’re about a mismatch between the Yale we find in admissions brochures and the Yale we experience every day. They’re about real experiences with racism on this campus that have gone unacknowledged for far too long. The university sells itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it often isn’t.

So the more I read about this situation, the more I’m drawn to a different question — one raised by Silliman resident Jencey Paz in an op-ed for the Yale Herald.

As a Silimander, I feel that my home is being threatened. Last week, Erika Christakis, the associate master of Silliman College, sent an email to the Silliman community that called an earlier entreaty for Yalies to be more sensitive about culturally appropriating Halloween costumes a threat to free speech. In the aftermath of the email, I saw my community divide. She did not just start a political discourse as she intended. She marginalized many students of color in what is supposed to be their home.

Alan JacobsBecause the Herald site is currently down (overwhelmed?) I’m reprinting Paz as she’s quoted by Baylor professor Alan Jacobs, who doesn’t buy the argument:

But Silliman College is not “supposed to be their home.” It is a residential college in a university, a place where people from all over the world, from a wide range of social backgrounds, and with a wide range of interests and abilities, come to live together temporarily, for about 30 weeks a year, before moving on to their careers. It is an essentially public space, though with controls on ingress and egress to prevent chaos and foster friendship and fellowship….

Residential colleges have long been defended as transitional spaces between the world of home and a fully independent adult life, and it would be a great mistake to think of them as merely continuing the ethos of home. That would leave young people totally unprepared for that “adult life,” which I think we might, for the purposes of this discussion, define as that period of one’s existence during which there is no one to run to to demand control over other people’s Halloween costumes.

So it’s a “residence,” but not a “home”? Yes, students only inhabit such spaces for about 30 weeks a year, but for four years. And while Jacobs quickly passes over the possibility that “Yale sells their residential college system to students as a kind of ‘home,'” the private colleges I know are doubling down on the value of the residential experience. In an overcrowded market, that’s one distinctive that can set them apart from cheaper alternatives.

Moreover, as such schools seek to articulate their “value-proposition,” they do a great deal to signal to students and their parents that college will be a “safe” experience.

In the process, of course, they risk signaling the wrong kind of “safety.” At least in an intellectual and perhaps spiritual sense, a liberal arts education requires risk. (This is all the more true for those of us who work in religious higher education, as Jared Burkholder argued in a guest post last year: “Like Lewis’ Aslan, genuine learning, though always good, is never completely safe. Any education worth its salt will challenge student assumptions, pose uncomfortable questions, and problematize traditional dualities by illuminating tension and nuance.”)

So having no firm conclusions of my own to offer, I’d love to hear from readers: Is the college a home for students? Can free speech be reconciled with students’ desire for safety? And what kind of safety?

3 thoughts on “Is College a “Home”?

  1. One thing I think you’re missing in your set up: Christakis’ email was sent in response to an email sent from the Dean for Intercultural Affairs (which was sent to the whole University), asking students to think critically about their own choices for Halloween Costumes and how they may reflect legacies of appropriation, colonialism, and the like. It did not censor students, or suggest that the University would (I’ve read it). When Christiakis emailed Sillimon, to say that she wouldn’t censor costumes and that offended students should “look away,” she was clearly not aware of the dynamics that the email from Intercultural Affairs was trying to expose and start a conversation about. She also made it seem like the International Affairs council was trying to censor students or impinge upon their right to free speech, which was by no means a tone or implications of their email.

    I don’t think students in Sillimon, and at the University as a whole, want their residential colleges to feel like protective bubbles where they never encounter new ideas or even conflicting ideas. I think they want to feel like their colleges, classrooms, and dorm rooms are ones where their desires to be free from discrimination, racism, and sexism are taken seriously. That sort of safety. I think that many of the students on Intercultural affairs and who were upset by Christakis’ email found it to belittle their concerns about the racial climate at Yale, about the realities of harmful cultural appropriation, and to misrepresent their concerns. Christiakis called for students to have a safe space “for a regressive experience” (i.e. being allowed to wear clearly offensive halloween costumes), but she didn’t realize how that played into the ways these communities are marginalized at Yale. She wasn’t offering them a space for their very real concerns to be heard, she instead misrepresented them and invalidated. I think that’s perhaps where the feeling of being “unsafe” came in.

  2. I have read both emails and find it fascinating that critics are inventing things that are not in the emails. The letter from Yale is asking, in a thoughtful way, that students put some thought into costume choices – no coersion, no sanctions, no admonitions. The letter from EChristakis counters, in a thoughtful way, that students treat each other like adults, the adult world being a place where offensive things can happen – no coersion, no stick-it-to Yale Administration, no counterinsurgency. She even ends her email with a “Happy Halloween,” not expecting, nor having intended to start a cultural firefight.

    I’ll get to your question in a minute. The above had to be said as well as this: the unthinking meanness of student demands for E&NChristakis’ resignations. Without hearing them out the students are intent on destroying the livelihoods of these two people, whom they live with in the same campus/residence hall – their NEIGHBORS. Granted, NChristakis can go wherever he wants (4 degrees, 3 advanced, from 4 of the best universities in the world, all in different disciplines, including MPH, MD and PhD, a TED-Talker). But a person of lesser credentials might not be so resliient. (It is worth adding that the notorious shrieking girl has no degrees, not that academic credentials should bestow moral high ground, but the girl was screaming at somebody who could be her father, was her neighbor in the residence hall, and who has lived 2.5 times her lifetime with public distinction).

    Your question is easily answerable for me. I have gotten into trouble with my wife whenever I’ve opined that “Learning is a traumatic process.” I used to say this about my son soon after he was born, but have been browbeaten out of repeating it. By this I mean that real learning and real lessons are acquired through some pain – physical, intellectual, emotional, whatever. I almost stabbed myself in the eye with a steak knife and have since learned to use a knife; I studied engineering in college and have since discovered that my understanding of many of the things I learned were at a superficial level and am trying to re-learn them with greater clarity; I’ve been told my bad behavior hurt people – a very difficult thing to listen to – and I have learned to modulate same.

    There is nothing Safe about learning, and by exention there is not Safe about being college. If we throw into a bucket all the things that college is supposed to be: Halloween, growing up, learning how to success and learning how to fail, free speech, and throw in “being safe” for good measure, none of these things can or should take place in a hermetically sealed safe-room. There is danger everywhere. Learn from it, embrace it, turn it around and use it to your advantage.

    Reiterating your question: Is the college a home for students? Can free speech be reconciled with students’ desire for safety? And what kind of safety?

    If college is supposed to be all the things in the above bucket, of course college is a home for students. Free speech IS safety. To be able to speak my mind without fear is the very definition of safety: ultimately, safety from physical, intellectual and emotional hurt.

    Finally, in re-reading my last statement, I realize I’ve just gotten on the bad side of Jencey Paz, the Silliman resident who famously said, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”

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