Near the end of the semester, I sat in a circle of first-year honors students at the Christian university where I work. They’re a bright group. Born around 1996-1997, these students belong to a generation defined by the rise of the religious “nones” and—according to the text we talked about that day—a fear of being seen as judgmental, particularly when it comes to contentious topics.
They usually keep class discussion going on their own, but this time, I interrupted. “I’ve noticed that when you’re discussing things, you rarely preface your opinions with 'I think' or 'I believe.' Do you know what you say?”
There was a brief pause. Someone murmured, “I feel like,” and heads nodded around the room. They offered a variety of reasons for using that phrase. They wanted to soften their statements so as not to offend.They weren’t sure what they believed yet—they were just testing ideas.
“I feel like we do that,” Stephen began, before the class erupted into laughter. As he finished his explanation, he used the phrase unconsciously at least twice more. But he made a good point: many times, saying I feel like was a way of being winsome, preventing tension, and thus making a more convincing argument. Abby had another perspective. In high school, she said, “My Christianity was offensive to people, and they did not want to talk about religion, ever. All my faith was allowed to be was a feeling, so we couldn’t debate it.”
Was “I feel like” really winsome, or was it a way of avoiding healthy debate? This question from my class relates to our broader scrutiny over campus culture, whether a deference to students’ “feelings” and a sense of “political correctness” hampers a commitment to academic freedom and rigorous debate.
In their Atlantic article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt suggest some factors making today’s students more fragile. Helicopter parents of the ‘90s taught these kids by example that the world is fundamentally unsafe, but that adults will protect them. Political polarization over the past 30 years has exaggerated the implicit biases across party lines. Ultimately, the writers present a generation of young people who lack resiliency, who don’t know how to fall and pick themselves up again. When someone offends them, rather than entering a discussion and making their case, they claim emotional damage and seek revenge.
And recent headlines offer a multitude of examples supporting Lukianoff and Haidt’s characterization. There’s the student who, after a chapel session on 1 Corinthians 13 at his Christian college, felt “offended because a homily on love made him feel bad for not showing love. In his mind, the speaker was wrong for making him ... feel uncomfortable.” Certain students at Harvard Law have asked professors not to teach rape law because it might cause distress, or even avoid using the word “violate” in class (“Does this conduct violate the law?”) because the word was triggering.
Others have called for trigger warnings before a range of classroom readings and books, including staples like Things Fall Apart and The Great Gatsby. The president of the University of Kentucky covered a historic fresco in the school’s Memorial Hall, because it “reminds one black student … that his ancestors were slaves.” A research professor focused on the psychology of learning wrote in Psychology Todaythat students increasingly suffer emotional breakdowns when they encounter everyday problems, such as having a mouse in their apartment, being called a “b----,” or getting a grade lower than a B on an assignment.
As an educator, parent, and Christian, I find these trends deeply troubling. The university should be a place that values freedom of speech and scholarship, where students are regularly exposed to new and strange ideas. College should allow them to explore, make mistakes, and say wrong things; that’s how learning happens.
I want to raise children who can fail (or get a B or a C) and have the resiliency to accept it and keep striving instead of falling apart. And as a Christian, I worry that in a climate where saying anything that offends someone can result in me losing my job, I won’t be able to speak the truth of the gospel freely.
As someone pointed out on Twitter: It’s easy to downplay a particular remark or offense when it’s not directed at you. Absolutely, hate speech doesn’t belong in the diversity of campus thought, and certain remarks will merit our protest. But not every mistake or instance of inappropriate wording requires a punitive response. Instead—especially in the college context—we should see these tensions as opportunities for discussion, correction, and growth, done together in our communities.
I see a difference between the Claremont McKenna College dean who carelessly referred to minority students as not fitting the school’s “mold” (revealing an implicit bias, but written in the context of efforts to hear out and help these students) and the leaders at the University of Missouri who displayed repeated disregard for students of color on their campus. In many cases, our protests ought to force important conversations to happen rather than to shut one side down. But if the powerful voices refuse to enter the conversation at all, perhaps they deserve to be dethroned.
As my students would say, that’s how I feel. I know plenty of others may be more or less sensitive about these issues, or have a different perspective altogether. (Even my husband and I found ourselves disagreeing with one another when we discussed it after my class’s conversation.)
Looking ahead to the next semester with my thoughtful but sensitive millennials, I found some insight in an unlikely place: a book called The Burning Word: A Christian Encounter with Jewish Midrash. Judith Kunst describes how observant Jews are taught to study the Bible, paired off into hevrutot, or study friends. Starting as young children,
They gather in the bet midrash, or study house, in a group of ten or twenty or a hundred to hunch in pairs over open Bibles, perhaps with the same partner they’ve had since youth. (The hevruta relationship is so important that the Israeli army takes pains to assign childhood hevrutot to serve in the same combat units.)
Students read the Torah portion aloud while “the other half of each pair listens intently … then jumps in with a response, thus commencing an intense, often hours-long session of questioning, answering, arguing—a robust, communal exploration of a text which, tradition holds, God commands them to interpret.”
This whole system embraces and relies on debate. Participants expect to disagree, but that doesn’t hinder the discussion—it furthers it. At times, study friends will make mistakes and follow faulty paths of interpretation. They might even say something offensive. But their discourse goes on because it happens in relationship.
These disagreements are always personal; they do not take place between disembodied strangers online (as ours often do), but with intimate friends. Study friends also make sure to position their debates within historical context as they use commentaries written by thinkers and theologians through the ages.
This is a high-stakes conversation, Kunst writes, “where not just the text on the table but also the multiple arguments over what it means are considered sacred, vital to the religious life of everyone in the room, of the entire community, and of the entire nation of Israel.” Rather than freeze in fear over making a mistake, for these devout Jews, “it may be more important to be in conversation with each other and get it ‘wrong’ than to get it ‘right’ but have the conversation stop.”
The example of hevrutot inspires me to imagine a healthy, stimulating environment for our students. Educators, parents, and churches alike desire to raise resilient young adults who can face setbacks, failures, disagreement, and being wrong without falling apart. In a pluralistic, free speech context, we hope for students who can wisely discern when to question, speak out, debate, or protest, and when to do more. We hope they’ll know when to graciously continue a conversation, and when it’s time to end it.
I feel like that might be a good step, but I’m open to debate.
Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Honors students at Taylor University. Her first book is forthcoming from Discovery House (spring 2017). Follow her on Twitter @amylpeterson.