April 10, 2023

LEVIN | Learning Can Be Uncomfortable. Good. 

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Not long ago, our Student Assembly proposed a resolution that would force professors to excuse students who wish not to read, discuss or listen to any course material that offends them, including anything that refers to “sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial violence, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment, etc.” Conceivably, the resolution would apply to any and all social issues, triggers and distressing themes that a student might prefer not to engage with. The President and Provost annulled the resolution, reasoning that it stands against Cornell’s founding vision of free inquiry. On this matter, I agree with the administration. 

Whether we like it or not, grades are a strong incentive for participation and learning. Under the resolution, offended students would not lose points for skipping classes or take-home reading assignments if the professor is teaching books like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (the novel depicts racial and domestic violence and its opening scene describes a suicide). If students no longer have an incentive to show up to class on days when professors examine social issues, students will stop showing up and professors will eventually stop teaching about real-world problems from poverty and war to sexism and racism. At a certain point, we students will be assigned only uncontroversial books that advocate for no particular position and comment on no social issues whatsoever. 

If we are not challenged intellectually and emotionally in the classroom, what point is there to college? I, for one, would rather tune into TV static than be coddled in a humanities class that refuses to pointedly confront social issues. To learn is to feel uncomfortable, and professors should, of course, approach sensitive topics carefully. I empathize with my peers who struggle with trauma and personal fears, but excusing students from class and homework on the basis of their discomfort is not a policy I can endorse. As the administration rightly explains, “Learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas is a core part of a university education: essential to our students’ intellectual growth, and to their future ability to lead and thrive in a diverse society.” 

More and more in my English classes, professors are avoiding discussing uncomfortable topics. Today’s professors are less willing to teach controversial books out of fear that students might get offended, but those books are often the most thought-provoking. One of my professors assigned J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians but had to clarify dozens of times that she does not support the actions of the Conrad-inspired protagonist (duh!). At one point, a peer of mine raised his hand and explained that if she had not reiterated it so many times, he would have been morally outraged and protested the assignment by whatever means necessary. 

Why are students quick to assume that a professor must agree with what they assign? I once thought the goal of a college education was precisely the opposite: that professors would present uncomfortable, even outright contentious, subject matter to spark meaningful dialogues. Apparently, that approach is fading out of style. Nowadays, growing movements on campuses across America and the world want to allow students, not professors, to choose what information is taught in the classroom. 

The movements I am referring to are both conservative and liberal. On the right, students support the hateful politics of book-banning and suppressing Critical Race Theory. On the left, students promote dangerously overprotective policies, like the one put forth by our student leaders. As a progressive independent who values free inquiry, I feel like the odd one out. I came to Cornell to learn at all costs, even at the cost of my own comfort. My message to my peers is simple: An education loses its value when students can selectively decide what pages of a required book they want to read, or which classes to attend for a course they are already enrolled in. 

There is no film we can place over our eyes and no headphones we can smother our ears with to filter out the iniquities of the world. So, as changemakers, we Cornellians must confront these social issues head-on and in a responsible manner — first in the classroom, then in society. Making it harder for students to learn about sensitive topics, which is what this resolution would effectively do, is no good if our aim is to create a socially-aware school culture.

Gabriel Levin is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Almost Fit to Print runs every other Monday this semester.