Political correctness hinders learning in college courses

During the first class of the semester, professor and chair of philosophy Theodore Everett distributed a syllabus for PHIL 235: Philosophy of Biology containing a “Free Speech” clause. The clause begins with the sentence, “There is no political correctness in any of my courses.” I find this attitude refreshing after spending nearly four years in an academic environment that is increasingly hostile toward First Amendment rights and open-minded conversation. I believe that every syllabus in every course at Geneseo should contain the same clause.

Everett is no stranger to controversial stances on campus politics. He has given several hotly debated talks, including one titled “Against ‘Sexual’ ‘Assault’ ‘Awareness’” in April 2013. In the three courses I have taken with him, Everett has consistently challenged his students to think critically—even when doing so requires leaving one’s comfort zone. He also makes his fair share of politically incorrect jokes. While I do not necessarily agree with everything he says, I fervently support his ability and willingness to say it.

The only possible way to genuinely convince another that your side is the correct one is to have a true debate. Whether the debate is between a realist and a nominalist in a philosophy course or a liberal and a conservative in a political science course, the principle remains the same: Anything less than an unrestrictive, rational discourse eliminates the possibility of objectivity in the classroom. This diminished potential for intellectual honesty is perhaps even more apparent when it is the professor who self-censors in an attempt to not offend anyone—or even to pander.

Increasingly, however, many students at Geneseo and other colleges seem to believe that unrestricted free speech poses some kind of urgent threat. In reality, the opposite is true. Opening the door to censorship and tiptoeing around sensitive issues prevents citizens—including students and faculty—from engaging in open, honest and intellectually challenging conversations about the issues that matter most.

Students who are consistently rewarded for hypersensitivity to difficult issues will inevitably be ill-equipped for the job market and the world at large. Outside of liberal college campuses, few places are safe from a wide spectrum of potentially offensive personal and political ideas.

Instead of preparing students to hold their own in conversation with those they may find to be prejudiced or ill-informed, however, policies and professors who shield students from uncomfortable ideas ultimately assist in the stunted growth of students’ persuasive powers. These well-meaning restrictions do not prevent the pain that comes with being marginalized and maligned or even just losing an argument. To the contrary, they only delay the inevitable and contribute to a virtual epidemic of 22-year-old college graduates who are emotionally and intellectually incapable of engaging in a rational disagreement.

Instead of preparing students to think critically when confronted with conflicting or self-contradictory ideas and to sometimes reconsider their own deeply held beliefs, these policies teach students to freeze up, get upset or simply stick their fingers in their ears in the face of cognitive dissonance.

Hopefully, there will always be educators like Everett who value critical thinking and rational disagreement over hollow, one-sided political correctness. Once students can learn to engage with uncomfortable ideas on campus, they will be prepared to tackle these same ideas in the world outside the college bubble.