Students today are more like children than adults and need protection. Lately, a moral panic about speech and sexual forms of autonomy in young children in universities has reached a crescendo. Most liberals celebrate these developments, yet with a certain uneasiness. Few of them want to apply these protections to society at large.
Conservatives and libertarians are up in arms. They see these rules as an assault on free speech and individual liberty. They think universities are treating students like children. There is a popular, romantic notion that students receive their university education through free and open debate about the issues of the day.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Students who enter college know hardly anything at all—that’s why they need an education. Classroom teachers know students won’t learn anything if they blab on about their opinions. Teachers are dictators who carefully control what students say to one another. That’s why the contretemps about a recent incident at Marquette University is far less alarming than libertarians think. An inexperienced instructor was teaching a class on the philosophy of John Rawls, and a student in the class argued that same-sex marriage was consistent with Rawls’ philosophy.
While I believe that the teacher mishandled the student’s complaint, she was justified in dismissing it. The purpose of the class was to teach Rawls’ theory of justice, not to debate the merits of same-sex marriage. The fact that a student injected same-sex marriage into the discussion does not mean that the class was required to discuss it. Critics complain that universities are treating adults like children. The problem is that universities have been treating children like adults. Everyone understands that a class is a failure if students refuse to learn because they feel bullied or intimidated, or if ideological arguments break out that have nothing to do with understanding an idea.