By: Avi Strauss | Editorials  | 

Who Gets to Insult Students?

Around two years ago, I stopped to talk with three peers tabling in Rubin Hall in support of education reform and school choice. The students were hoping to spread awareness about charter schools, advocating that schools are a legitimate way to improve public education in the U.S.

Within minutes of my arrival and discussion of the issue with them, a tenured professor, whose background is not remotely related to political science, sociology, or economics, approached the table and interrogated the students about their advocacy. The professor’s questioning rapidly descended into disparagement and insults, as he accused the students of racism for supporting charter schools.

The students, for their part, remained respectful throughout the interaction, despite the professor’s verbal aggression.

As a student in my fourth year on campus, I’ve witnessed several interactions like the one described above in the classroom as well, in which students expressed opinions contrary to that of the professor. In these instances, the professor either directly or implicitly described their comments as regressive, unbecoming, immoral, or irrational.

To be sure, these interactions are few and far between in the Yeshiva University classroom setting. Most discussions and debate between students and faculty remain respectful throughout. But debate can get heated, and investment in an issue occasionally descends into pejoratives.

It is in this context in which I would like to address some of the concerns expressed by students and faculty with the appearance of people like Dennis Prager and Ben Shapiro on campus.

There is a consistent theme of students suggesting that inflammatory speakers not come to campus because they may insult students. They argue that as a university, YU’s priority should be to protect students from verbal attacks and, by allowing these speakers to lecture, the university has abdicated this critical responsibility.

I find this curious on two accounts:
-It is well accepted amongst university students that certain professors subscribe to very different opinions on social and political issues. While disagreement is welcome, it may also come with a sprinkling of injurious language.
-The Prager and Shapiro events were voluntary affairs.

And, critically, both of these points are upended by a simple recognition of our adulthood. College-aged students can think for themselves and make rational decisions about if and when they wish to engage in debate, and what their sensitivity tolerance level is. And they don’t distinguish between outside speakers and those salaried by the university.

We can choose whether staking out an opinion diametrically opposed to a professor’s in class is worth our time, and we can handle confronting the fact that the professor knows more than we do and is going to explain why we’re wrong. We can also choose when we want to publically voice our opinions in newspapers and at events, and whether or not we go to events where our political sensibilities may be challenged, or even rudely talked over.

Being a college student shouldn’t entail a protective insult-barrier bequeathed to us by our university staff. We don’t need protection from coarse language or coarse views, nor do we need to be guarded against using our mental faculties to determine whether or not a speaker will insult us. On the contrary, students should understand that insults are the mark of inferior substance—using insults to advance an argument or tear down somebody else’s typically betrays a lack of confidence in oneself or a lack of respect for the person expressing contrary opinions.  

Nonetheless, if we are willing to join the public debate, we are willing to accept the public’s scrutiny, even when lowbrow and dim, or at the very least, should be.

This is why the students tabling for school choice didn’t flinch when the professor confronted them. By tabling, and affirming support for a sometimes controversial issue, they accepted that they could be scrutinized. The unnamed professor, who wished to challenge them as professors often do, simply seized the opportunity to open up a debate, which the students welcomed.

To suggest that students be protected the moment they finish their sentence expressing an opinion is antithetical to the very core of what college education should be. The very notion of “opinion” implies that there is another side that stands in opposition, waiting to disagree.

Is it unfortunate that some of those disagreements result in insults and personal slights? Of course. But do we need to be protected from them? Not if we want to seriously engage in public debate like adults.