“A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for”

Frequently attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, the titular words of wisdom sum up what intellectual curiosity and higher education are – or should be – all about.

Photo of a large sailing ship moving away from the camera. The sea is calm, the backdrop is of orange clouds.

Apparently the President of the United States agrees.

“Obama explained his belief that engaging with ideas you might disagree with is a foundational element of higher education.” 

“The purpose of college is not just… to transmit skills. It’s also to widen your horizons, to make you a better citizen,” Obama said. “The way to do that is 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 broad point of view.”

Recently, a college instructor addressed problems encountered while teaching a film class about historical depictions of sex in American cinema. She ran up against the idea of trigger warnings and couching the subject matter in safe terms versus the necessity of discussing, and often viewing, controversial subject matter. The title of the article is My trigger-warning disaster: “9 1/2 Weeks,” “The Wire” and how coddled young radicals got discomfort all wrong. Although the format is too condensed to explore the situation in much depth, it is a very thought-provoking read. Recommended.

As I continue to research the language of diversity, I find myself wanting to respect and support everyone who’s ever been marginalised, but also needing to be able to speak directly about troublesome topics. So far, it’s worked by carefully choosing the wording of my opinions in academic writing, while saving fresh exploration of delicate subject matter for time spent with friends who are open to that kind of conversation. Important components of the latter are a foundation of trust and a mutual understanding that it’s safe to talk about difficult subjects in an unsafe manner. That is, being mindful of sensibilities, but prioritising clarity over filters.

It’s not easy and, in this day of Internet persecution, I carry around a tiny fear that something I say will be taken out of context and used against me at a later date. Intention does not, by definition, excuse harm or free one from consequences; no matter my intent, if I say something obtuse or hurtful, I could rightfully be called out on it. Therefore, I can only hope that continual honesty about my flaws and my desire to improve lay enough of a character portrait that I’ll survive any future digital vigilantism.

More importantly, I hope that our collective unconscious will evolve to embrace both sensitivity and willingness to wrestle with difficulties in a sane and reasonable manner. It’s hard to broaden your horizons if your main priority is security.

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