About twenty five years ago, at my elite Amsterdam high school, Vossius Gymniasium, I received a final exam from our popular history teacher, Jan Blokker, in which we were asked to analyze a blatantly anti-semitic passage from Hitler's Mein Kamp. For complex legal reasons Mein Kamp is not easily available in the Netherlands (there is a de facto ban on publishing it), but I recognized the passage at once because I had read it before in my own copy (which I had bought Stateside). We had not been warned this might happen, and after the exam I wrote an editorial for our school newspaper, Vulpes, in which I criticized Blokker's decision. (I also unfairly noted the fact that Blokker's dad was a famous polemicist who enjoyed comparing his impressions of visiting Israel to Nazi concentration-camps.) I believe he wrote a response explaining his pedagogical choices, and that was the end of the local matter.
Now, I grew up in a local Jewish community full of Holocaust survivors; my choice for a secular (non Jewish) high school was, in part, motivated by a desire to escape the constant threat of terrorist attacks at our heavily guarded Jewish schools and the more general, claustrophobic environment in which a low-grade panic and persecution-complex were part of the background DNA of daily life. (This vibe exists to this day: recently a group of kids were discouraged from playing in the team colors of Germany's die Mannschaft [the reigning world champions] at the annual local, Jewish soccer competition.) But while I was upset by having to confront unexpectedly blatant antisemitism during an exam (which is not exactly a moment for shared intellectual inquiry), that was, with the benefit of hindsight, not my main reason for objecting to Blokker's decision. What really irritated me was the thought that the latent anti-semitic views of my class room peers -- who grew up to become the educators, novelists, journalists, bankers, and civil servants that help constitute the evolving public sphere -- might be encouraged or normalized not because they would imitate Hitler's views, but because their own prejudices, which I had discerned over the years, would be thought benign and modest in comparison despite a very partial overlap of commitments.
When I wrote my high school editorial words like 'trigger warning' and 'micro-agression' did not exist yet and the Dutch public sphere was less antagonistic toward minorities than it is now. At the time, Holland prided itself on its history of tolerance and there was a public culture in which any criticism of ethnic minorities was thought unwelcome in our free press alongside equally strong taboos on, say, discussion of Dutch war crimes in Indonesia or the role of Dutch farming in destroying the environment; you can imagine being the most perfect society ever created if you systematically ignore all local, social ills.
My memories were prompted by the fact that the philosophical blogosphere has witnessed the sudden growth of an alliance in defense of freedom of speech between our self-proclaimed Marxist, Brian Leiter, who is polemicizing against what he calls (a) "the New Infantilism," and my friends at Bleedingheartlibertarians who decry (b) the New Campus Censorship™ and (c) the "debate over so-called “microaggressions."" On (c) there has been a spirited response at Feministphilosophers, While (a-b) seem to amount to the same thing, here I focus primarily on Brennan's position because he has made a more thorough effort to articulate it.
One of the oddities of the current polemic is that the so-called philosophical defenders of free speech are recycling Memes developed to prevent government interference in speech in a context in which there are student campaigns to address how universities handle (i) faculty incapable of sexual self-restraint (and a lot worse) with students; (ii) campus cultures in which students may be sexually violated by their peers; and (iii) curricula that seem to aestheticize and glorify rape and various forms of domination.
Ít is odd to characterize responses to (i-iii) as "students hiding from scary ideas," (Brennan) when it is primarily student movements that are are putting these issues on the agenda in a context of an existing culture of confidentiality that, in practice, has served the interests of administrators and perpetrators far more than victims. These students are promoting campus discussions and debates about uncomfortable facts (including the pattern of indifference of too many local police departments and university administrations to victims of sex crimes); true educators ought to be proud of facilitating endurance performance art efforts (like those by Emma Sulkowicz), and they ought to be welcomed by those that defend freedom of speech. When Swift offered his modest proposal (recall) he was criticizing the abuse, poverty, and famines of the poor by a feudal and religiously oppressive colonial power. By contrast Brennan offers his modest proposal to defend tenured professors from (ahh) critical students.
In each case that has made the media, complex contextual and conceptual issues are at play, and it is by no means obvious how universities balance being in loco parentis (and Stateside they charge hefty dollars to be so understood), foster inclusive intellectual environments, secure academic excellence, and promoting inquiry (not to mention complying with government regulations). The proper response to these challenges is not, 'be like me,' -- for the person advocating that stance gets by just fine without putting issues like (i-iii) on the agenda -- or the ridiculing without qualification of student movements, but genuine local experimentation with norms and practices. (I would think that is the proper Libertarian response?)
Brennan, who actually does offer something like a trigger warning on his syllabi (about which below), reports that his (presumably self-selected) students "are shocked to discover how many empirical and normative premises they share with Adolf Hitler." It is by no means obvious what his students' mature views are going to be once the shock has worn off. A lot probably depends on individual developments as well as personal, social and intellectual contexts that are hard to predict and are out of a teacher's hands. But it is by no means obvious that such shock therapy is always and everywhere the best form of education.
Brennan reports that his trigger warning includes this statement (bold and italics in original): "Finally, it requires that one experience and overcome, rather than flee from, serious intellectual discomfort." Now, as it happens I find Brennan's course aspirations exciting (I may also start using his trigger warning) and I would love to audit his class it if I ever get a chance to spend a sabbatical at Georgetown. But it is by no means obvious that experiencing and overcoming serious intellectual discomfort is a necessary condition for (A) "the pursuit of truth" (which he thinks "the classroom and the university is a forum" for) or even (B) "the pursuit of responsible ideology." (By "Responsible ideology" he means "putting in the hard work to be justified in one’s political views. It requires a synthesis of humanistic and social scientific methods. It requires that one understand and, in a sense, can “get inside the head” of views entirely foreign to one’s own.") To be clear: (A) and (B) are not identical epistemic ideals if only because it is quite clear that responsible ideology (or justified political views) can fall short of truth.
On (A): a lot of known truth is pursued successfully without experiencing and overcoming, despite the presence of various epistemic and personal barriers, such discomfort. So, the pursuit of truth cannot be used as a blanket justification for promoting discomforting experiences in students. One also often hears that 'in the outside world' students will encounter awful views so it is best to expose them to these. This argument is just silly. There are a lot of injustices and scandalous features of the world that are wholly inappropriate for the class room or the university, which in its best moments has always understood itself as community with higher standards than the fallen world we inhabit. Brennan's own argument against 'safe spaces is in the spirit of this bad argument; he has great fun ridiculing the idea of 'safe spaces;' without noticing that the very idea of a safe space is a secular adaptation of what was once known as a Shining City on the hill (promoted by President Ronald Reagan among others).
On (B): I have non-trivial sympathy for Brennan's position; it is possible that we can only have justified political views if we have really grappled with views entirely foreign to our own. It follows from this that we ought to be committed to a life-time of learning, but that due to constraints on time and opportunity costs, in practice we always fall short of holding a responsible ideology (presumably his syllabus is not the right place to announce this).
But it is worth noting that in Brennan's writings on these campus debates, he makes no public effort whatsoever to get inside the head of the proponents of the views he opposes. He also describes his opponents as 'new infants,' without doing justice to any of their arguments. Rather, he proposes norms that may work fine in an ideal theory, but that fail to do justice to the messy reality he writes about. He embraces an idealization -- the "traditional college model in which every idea, no matter how repugnant, can be discussed in an intellectual way at any time," -- and confuses it for reality. Universities and scientific/philosophical communities have always been places where some ideas get explored in careful detail while simultaneously policing the limits of legitimate speech and keeping quiet about their own unjust practices.