column Dennis Chiang

The Slow Death of the Academy

Safe space policies in recent times have threatened to overwhelm academic freedom. (Rachel Johanna Lim)


“We cannot tolerate intolerance.”

This aphorism best encapsulates the current attitude in academia towards controversial areas of research, which are often labeled as ‘intolerant’. In providing funding or hiring faculty for controversial areas of research—such as race, sex, and gender—academic institutions err on the side of caution and are hesitant to fund their research. This wariness stems from a fear of student reprisal, the ensuing bad publicity and discrimination lawsuits that will invariably fly their way.

It was because of this worrying trend that I had Jay Lusk ’18 ask President Lewis during the last Town Hall about Yale-NUS College’s strategy in balancing safe-space policies and academic freedom. Since then I have met with President Lewis along with Michael James Anthony ’17 and while it was heartening to hear that we shared the same concerns, I felt it was necessary to inform the rest of the Yale-NUS community on the importance of this issue as I think modern safe-space policies are toxic to academic freedom.

In recent years, the academy has taken a strong social justice slant. This has pervaded universities to such an extent that last year a student at Harvard University argued in their student newsletter, The Harvard Crimson, that academic freedom should give way to ‘academic justice’—a euphemism for pre-selecting certain ideas as infallible and censoring any contrarian idea to it.

Universities used to be dangerous places where any and all ideas were permitted for the sake of robust intellectual discourse and ideas were taken on their own merit. However, universities have now become more concerned about ‘intersectionality’ and ensuring a diversity of academic voices. While this sounds good in theory, in practice, the validity of an argument is now determined based on the identity of the person making it as opposed to its merit.

For example, at the University of Oxford last year, a scheduled debate on abortion was shut down because it was deemed offensive to the school’s female population. One of the reasons stated was the fact that the debaters were two cisgender men who had no place having an intellectual discussion on what women do with their bodies.

This is part of a larger trend of the insulation of individuals against exposure to uncomfortable topics of discussion that has taken over academic institutions globally, and I find this absolutely reprehensible. There is a principle of mutual reciprocity when it comes to freedom of speech—no one gets to be the arbiter of who can and cannot speak or what can or cannot be heard.

It is discouraging that this wave of academic social justice seems to be reaching even Yale-NUS. For example, ideas of sexual dimorphism and sex-linked traits are deemed as ‘incorrect’ opinions to hold in some of our classes. It is not hard to imagine that in the future, more radical professors may go one step further and censor any research or interrogation of such ideas by their academic peers on the basis of ‘intolerance’.

It has been argued that this new ‘social justice’ position is where modern universities need to head after decades of being ivory towers. This new Western conception of what the academy should be, however, spits in the face of centuries of Asian academic traditions.

In just one of many Eastern academic traditions, that of Zen Buddhism, the discovery and reconciliation of an uncomfortable truth as one of many tangential answers to a philosophical riddle is key to reaching its epiphanic moment of clarity. Given that Yale-NUS was conceived as a revolutionary new university that would integrate the best of both Eastern and Western academic traditions, to lean so heavily on the modern Western conception of what the academy should be seems contrary to the school’s stated vision.

It is my contention that if Yale-NUS reifies a safe-space policy in line with those that have been implemented in other universities elsewhere, it will go the same way as these institutions and restrict academics’ ability to teach and research controversial ideas. Safe-space policies legitimize subjective perceptions of victimhood and allow these ‘victims’ to censor any idea they do not like.

There is only one ‘safe-space guideline’ that I feel is necessary in a university: Anything that directly incites physical violence toward any person or persons will not be permitted. That is more than sufficient. If certain individuals are struggling with the ‘emotional trauma’ of such an ‘unsafe’ space, we should provide better psychological and mental health services to mitigate this. These vulnerable individuals should also not come into university with the expectation that the institution exists to protect them from ideas they subjectively perceive as ‘traumatizing’ or ‘intolerant’. That is not the function of a university.

If there is one thing I would like people to take from this piece, it is this: A university where even a person’s deepest, most cherished convictions can be called painfully into question is the only university worth going to. Let’s hope Yale-NUS can be such a university.

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