Universities are not the Real World (TM)

So I’ve been listening to Amicus for some time, and the most recent podcast had snippets from a symposium on free speech on campus. It was broad, but the three themes were: safe spaces, trigger warnings, and political correctness.

Each of these could be a post in their own right. I’ll begin by saying that these are three distinct concepts, and before any conversation can be had, it would behoove us to agree upon a definition. But the focus of my post isn’t to whittle these down to their component parts and try to dissect their importance (or lack thereof) on college campuses. Rather, I want to talk about this idea of free exchange of ideas vis-a-vis the “real world.”

Frequently this conversation begins with the role colleges play in young adult lives. The fact of the matter is that we don’t allow adolescents much exposure to real world conditions and, for those fortunate enough to go to school, we view this step as much one of personal maturation and exposure as we do academic learning.

This can be true on some fronts. You need to consider what you’re paying for college,  budget your money, budget your time, network, determine what a proper major is and how that will relate back to employability, etc etc.

But when it comes to the conversations we have on campus, this is not the real world, and I don’t mean that in a protective way. I generally subscribe to the idea that universities are sacrosanct as a place of research and intellectual dialogue. It’s important to preserve these forums; historically, they have been the epicenter of academic exchange. More importantly, unlike other contexts where we exchange ideas  (like political contexts), the norms here are more attuned to civil discourse where parties are there to learn and probe at each other’s ideas, with the ideal being the “better” idea wins. This isn’t how it always plays out, and there is the risk of giving unequal proposals undeserving equal dignity, but these are exceptions to what is otherwise a good general rule.

Which brings me to my point: this is not what we do in the real world. The conversations you have on a college campus would probably land you in HR real fast at your real world job. We joke about how politics and religion are no-go places during dinner conversations and family events. Topics we discuss with peers we frankly don’t know very well are welcomed in universities, whereas there are some conversations we simply will not have with people we care about because they’re too divisive, sticky, or otherwise hazardous terrain to navigate.

There are some peculiar situations, like law schools talking about rape law, where this exposure really is both professional and personal, but I’m not willing to make such a broad statement about universities and young people based on a specific post-graduate profession and a class of people who, frankly, are going to be much older than the those we commonly think of when we talk about college.

So when we talk about college being a place for kids to become adults – a place where they can wade into real world waters – let’s remember that this truly entails. The need to maintain robust conversational landscapes at universities is crucial, but you can’t argue that it occupies this unique space in liberal society on the one hand, and yet have it be something so pedestrian that you will perish in the real world without it. The real world is a carefully curated place, at least when it comes to the conversations we have for the vast majority of our day, and ultimately that’s primarily what this debate centers around: what we can say and to whom we say it. It’s fundamentally disingenuous to portray college students as uniquely sensitive when an entire professional and social culture has revolved and grown around previous generations’ careful cultivation of manners and etiquette the exclude the same, if not more, topics.

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