Sarah Crandall '19
"It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows." Epictetus
"It is in fact a part of the function of education to help us escape, not from our own time—for we are bound by that—but from the intellectual and emotional limitations of our time." T. S. Eliot
Hearing Professor Coughlin and Loyola Professor Alexander Tsesis discuss the propriety of limiting free speech on university campuses, I couldn’t help but reflect on the purpose of education. Both professors and I agree that the First Amendment does not protect all speech, and since the discussion did not focus on the current limits of the law as much as the policy questions involved, my response focuses on the normative implications of campus speech restrictions.
As I see it, education is about more than paying a ridiculous sum for a paper bearing my name. I’m here to learn—to hear ideas I never thought of before, to have my fundamental ideas challenged, to see if they will still stand. It’s not a comfortable process. And it isn’t supposed to be. If safe spaces become synonymous with echo chambers, and if classes are expected to be safe spaces, that undercuts the point of education. As Professor Tsesis rightly noted, students miss valuable parts of their education if their professors let them skip the parts that make them sad or uncomfortable. Sometimes the most painful experiences are the most formative. I remember reading and discussing The Hiding Place, describing a Dutch Resistance worker’s torturous experiences in Nazi concentration camps, as an eighth grader. It made me cry. It made me angry. But it forced me to think about how I would respond in a similar situation, and I learned from the narrator’s growth. It exposed me to different ways of thinking and enabled me to assess whether those ways of thinking were right and why.
The danger of campus speech regulations, born from the idea that school should be a safe space, is that they often prematurely shut down discussion that would otherwise lead to growth. I’ve heard from my fellow students how the mere prospect, or in some cases, the firsthand experience, of being labelled a "hater" has had a chilling effect on their speech. They refrain from saying what they think in group discussions not because their ideas lack a rational foundation but because they fear the only responses will be straw-man analysis, ad hominem attacks, ostracism, or even harassment claims because a given idea is politically “incorrect” and personally offensive to someone present. That sort of one-strike-you’re-out reaction does no one any favors in the long run. It doesn’t encourage wrong ideas to be refuted with rational argument rather than name-calling, and it doesn’t teach students how to engage with these ideas post-graduation, when they may not have the luxury of walking out of the uncomfortable conversations. It only serves to leave the disparaged students feeling disrespected and resentful, forcing them into their own growth-stunting echo chambers.
Regardless of what background we come from or what beliefs we hold, none of us has all the answers. I hope that UVa will be a place where people can freely and earnestly pursue truth together, treating each other with the dignity all human beings deserve. Rather than decreeing what can and cannot be said, let’s have the hard conversations. And let’s be better people for them.