FIRE is drawing attention to a transcript from President Obama’s town hall meeting in Iowa yesterday, in which the president says students need to be open-minded, refrain from shutting down points of view with which they disagree, and not seek to avoid views they find offensive. President Obama used the word “coddled,” which suggests he has read Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s viral Atlantic article “The Coddling of the American Mind.”
The president said that colleges need “to create a space where a lot of ideas are presented and collide and people are having arguments and people are testing each other’s theories, and over time people learn from each other because they’re getting out of their own narrow point of view and having a broader point of view.” He went on to say:
I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who, you know, is too conservative. Or, they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African Americans, or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. And, you know, I gotta tell you that I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.
This strikes me two ways — first as a feint. It seems improbable that Obama really believes some of this, especially when he says students should be permitted to avoid trigger-warning-worthy books. His own language (“a demeaning signal toward women”) betrays sympathy with the trigger warning advocates. Obama’s statement that, perhaps “sometimes,” the “problem” lies not just with “folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal” but also with the liberals who “sometimes aren’t listening to the other side,” rings hollow coming from a president whose administration has consistently resisted listening to the other side.
Still, it’s the first time I’ve heard Obama stand up for disinvited speakers or against such things as trigger warnings since he has held office. So his statements also strike me as a milestone. Obama is right that people with a “narrow” point of view can benefit from speaking with others with whom they disagree. His call for “testing” of theories, willingness to change our minds, and, essentially, a marketplace of ideas is a needed one. Perhaps the current popularity of arguments for freedom of inquiry by Lukianoff, Haidt, and others have left Obama with a sense of liability, and he wants to cast his lot with the side that is increasingly winning the moral high ground. In any case, I commend the president for defending intellectual freedom and diversity and call on his administration to back up these words with actions.
This article orginally appeared in Phi Beta Cons on September 15, 2015.