By Conor Friedersdorf
Last fall, student protesters at Yale University demanded that Professor Nicholas Christakis, an academic star who has successfully mentored Ivy League undergraduates for years, step down from his position as faculty-in-residence at Silliman College, along with his wife, Erika Christakis, who shared in the job’s duties.
The protesters had taken offense at an email sent by Erika Christakis.
Nicholas Christakis will continue on as a tenured Yale faculty member. Erika Christakis, who gave up teaching at Yale last semester, recently published a book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups.
The controversy that culminated in this week’s resignations began last October, when Erika Christakis was teaching a Yale class called “Concept of the Problem Child.”
An expert in early childhood education, she’s long been critical of ways that adults deprive children of learning experiences by over-policing their behavior. When Yale administrators sent an all-students email advising Yalies to avoid “culturally unaware or insensitive choices” when choosing their Halloween costumes, Erika Christakis responded with an email of her own, acknowledging “genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation,” lauding the “spirit of avoiding hurt and offense,” but questioning whether students were well-served by administrators asserting norms rather than giving them space to shape their own.
“Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity—to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?” she asked. “What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment? Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.”
Many students were outraged by the email, particularly a portion that Erika Christakis attributed to her husband: “Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
Student critics responded, in part, by circulating a petition that accumulated scores of signatures from Yale students and alumni. “You ask students to ‘look away’ if costumes are offensive, as if the degradation of our cultures and people, and the violence that grows out of it is something that we can ignore,” the petition stated, adding that “we were told to meet the offensive parties head on, without suggesting any modes or means to facilitate these discussions to promote understanding.”
Soon after his wife sent her email, Nicholas Christakis found himself standing on a campus quad surrounded by protesters. He attempted to respond in person to their concerns. After watching videos of the scene, I noted the core disagreement between the professor and the undergraduates. Christakis believed that he had an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to respond that he was persuaded or articulate why he maintained a different view. In short, he believed that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue.
Many students believed that his responsibility was to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They saw anything short of a declaration of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respected students by validating their hurt feelings.
Their perspective was informed by the idea that their residential college is akin to a home. At Yale, residential colleges have what was then called a “master”—a professor who lives on site and is responsible for its academic, intellectual, and social life. “Masters work with students to shape each residential college community,” Yale stated, “bringing their own distinct social, cultural, and intellectual influences to the colleges.” The approach is far costlier than what’s on offer at commuter schools, but aims to create a richer intellectual environment where undergrads can learn from faculty and one another even outside the classroom.
“No,” Christakis said, “I don’t agree with that.”
As he saw it, there was no contradiction between creating a safe residence for Silliman students and challenging them intellectually, a view Yale itself officially shares (though what its representatives convey to prospective students is opaque to outsiders).
Professor Alan Jacobs of Baylor University published one of the more insightful posts on this aspect of the controversy, observing that any Yale student seeking an environment akin to a home is bound to be disappointed, because their residential colleges are, by design, places where “people from all over the world, from a wide range of social backgrounds, and with a wide range of interests and abilities, come to live together temporarily, for about 30 weeks a year, before moving on to their careers. It is an essentially public space,” he added, “though with controls on ingress and egress to prevent chaos and foster friendship and fellowship.”
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