‘Beneficial Violation’: Professors on Education

Part 1/90000 of a series of frustrated aphorisms on free speech in academia, the rights and entitlement of students vs. professors, etc.

There’s a common theme to the opinions expressed by actual professors on the subject of trigger warnings. It’s the notion that job of education is to provide a kind of beneficial violation, one that will shake up the student from their old modes of thinking, break down their preconceptions, and reforge them into a smarter, more open individual.  The converse is that universities are failing in their duty if they protect students from this beneficial violation, and that students can’t learn properly without being forced into contact with viewpoints they disagree with–or literally any viewpoint, without exception.

There is a kind of violence inherent in presenting your views to students, of imposing your framework on others, that underlies all acts of education. But what I find most interesting about this view of education is that it seems to be predicated on traces of what American universities were like before the days of Black people, POCs and women being admitted to their ranks.

When a Yale administrator sent this email to students voicing her personal opinion about the inappropriateness of official guidelines for culturally appropriative/offensive halloween costumes, she said one thing I found extremely interesting:

Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience…

Universities are and have been a site of both violation and safety, and are struggling with that double-edged legacy now. The assumption Christakis makes is that experimentations with transgression are a part of growth and learning, that they are harmless expressions of youthful defiance and experimentation.

Universities were like this in the past, places where students would do and say whatever they wanted about anybody. That’s why professors are so attached to the violation of teaching; it’s because, for the homogenous communities on campuses past, every campus was automatically one of the safe spaces they so deplore today, so safe and insulated that the professors had a moral imperative to expose their students to debate.

In the higher-ed institutions of history, entitled, rich, young white men were the ones in need of breaking down. After they indulged in the hideous free-play of racial, gender, and class stereotypes Christakis mourns, they would listen to professors’ maverick howling about how their generation was entitled garbage. Perhaps they would eventually go into the business of trying to break down and reforge subsequent generations of young, rich, white men. They did this because they knew first-hand that students needed reforging because they themselves are and had been rich, entitled, white men. And they knew this reforging would be beneficial because it took place in a space made for and conscious of the needs and experiences of upper-class white men.

“Experimentation” is harmless when it takes place in a homogenous environment, and so is the intellectual violation that professors so insist on, when your peers are all very similar to you. But it means something entirely different to continue to insist on the inherent violation of education, sans caveat, when universities today are a disgusting cesspool of racial stereotypes, sexism, classism, and other grossness–the difference being that higher-education institutions now contain the very students that are the butt of the “experimentation” upperclass white men are used to being entitled to.

Professors are upset because attempts are being made to modify the way and methods used in the reforging work of education. There is a violence inherent in any discourse, in presenting your views as fact in any discipline or situation; but when professors are proud of having the power to violate all students regardless of their situation or place in life, they give the lie to the very openness they claim to espouse.