During Fall Break I traveled to Los Angeles for a series of Wesleyan meetings and events. I also had the good fortune to visit family – my two young grandchildren (ok, and their parents) fill me with joy.
Around the time I was leaving Middletown, students received an announcement concerning social media and the harmful disruptions that can occur when rumors and anonymous accusations are passed around. We see this all over the country – from conspiracy theories gaining traction to a social media outrage machine undermining possibilities of connection across differences. It’s hard to protect oneself against the noxious noise of angry posts, and we should beware of contributing to a climate that undermines possibilities for solidarity. I found myself these last few days explaining to my 2-year-old grandson about sharing with the other kids at preschool. Sharing is obviously such a good thing, but as I thought about another kind of sharing on social media, I considered how hurtful it can be. Even if we know that it’s in the business plans for social media companies, we don’t have to be online conduits for negativity.
At one of the Wesleyan events, an alum asked me about the tension between protecting academic freedom and protecting student sensitivities. I replied that the students I encounter are quite resilient and that they require little protection. They do seek to change conditions that they perceive as unfair or systematically unjust. Academic freedom is at the core of our mission. The ability of students and teachers to speak their minds, to inquire widely over difficult and disturbing subjects is fundamental to a liberal education. There are times when we must step in to protect members of our community from harassment or intimidation – when we must protect “safe enough spaces” so that academic freedom and open inquiry can continue. Most of the time, though, we can exercise resilience, vigilance, and care so as to nurture the freedom of ongoing teaching, artistic practice, and research. We learn from that exercise habits of mind and spirit that are relevant far beyond the borders of the university.
I’m looking forward to the second half of the semester. There are bound to be plenty of experiences and achievements worth sharing.