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.”
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.
Because 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?