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Obama calls out liberal “dogmatism” on college campuses

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

President Obama wants college students at Missouri and elsewhere to organize and protest when it's important, but he's also worried about something else: students being too quick to shut down the other side and not listen.

In a wide-ranging interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, he argued that on college campuses, students are too eager to avoid debate and discussion:

I don't want you to think that a display of your strength is simply shutting other people up. And that part of your ability to bring about change is going to be by engagement and understanding the viewpoints and the arguments of the other side.

And so when I hear, for example, you know, folks on college campuses saying, "We're not going to allow somebody to speak on our campus because we disagree with their ideas or we feel threatened by their ideas--" you know, I think that's a recipe for dogmatism. And I think you're not going to be as effective…

I do worry if young people start getting trained to think that if somebody says something I don't like, if somebody says something that hurts my feelings, that my only recourse is to shut them up, avoid them, push them away, call on a higher power to protect me from that.

Obama made clear that he supports some of the same principles as the protestors — that at the University of Missouri there was "clearly a problem" with race relations, as attested to by both students and faculty, and that Yale University wasn't out of line when it sent an email asking students to refrain from offensive Halloween costumes.

He also said he's aware that what he's asking isn't entirely fair: It puts the burden on the students who are asking for change to put up with what they see as slights in the interest of reasoned debate. "Does that put more of a burden on minority students or gay students or Jewish students or others, in a majority that may be blind to history and blind to their hurt?" he said. "It may put a slightly higher burden on them."

Still, it's not the first time Obama has argued against what's been called the "new political correctness" on college campuses. In September, he argued against college students who were asking to be "coddled," saying that driving out offensive speakers or classroom material was "not the way we learn."