Higher education freedom of expression death spiral | Opinion
The mission of every college and university is to provide a forum for the free exchange of thoughts, vigorous debate, and the widest range of ideas possible. At least that’s what it should be. But this mission is at odds with the spirit of our present times, defined by the silos of group thinking on chat rooms, the shame of social media, the hyper-partisan news media, the signaling of virtue. conscious enterprise and the Puritan language police.
In this environment, it sometimes feels like the safest thing to do is stay quiet. And that seems to be the approach more students are taking these days. A massive new survey of 37,000 students reveals that more than 80% of them censor themselves in class, on campus and online. The survey forms the basis of the College’s 2021 Free Speech Rankings, produced by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), RealClearEducation (my organization) and research firm College Pulse.
We asked students how open they are to having difficult conversations on issues such as abortion and affirmative action, and how willing they would be to allow controversial liberal or conservative speakers on campus. We also asked students to tell us if they thought their college administrators would support free speech if someone said something offensive.
Overall, the responses we got paint a worrying picture. When we asked students if they were comfortable disagreeing with a professor on a controversial topic, only 40% said yes.
The most disturbing revelation from the survey is how comfortable students are with using disruptive behavior to crush speech they dislike. Almost one in four students say it is okay to use violence to stop unwanted speech. In some elite universities, that number reaches as high as one in three.
Students are not comfortable expressing themselves, nor are they very tolerant of others’ words.
It is no coincidence that in an age when one sometimes hears that “words are violence”, young people now think that actual physical violence is an appropriate response to offensive words. The great irony of our time is that personal hypersensitivity tends to desensitize us to the suffering of others. Speak to me correctly—or else.
Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE, recently told me that he sees a strong connection between the rise of social media and the decline of free speech. “Social media has taken obscure ideas from campus and honed them as weapons to enforce ideological conformity,” he said. And I think he’s right. We all recognize how impossible it is to have constructive disagreements with friends and family, let alone strangers, on Facebook or Twitter. People are quick to say things online that they would never say in front of someone.
We are losing the humanizing force of the community. The internet has connected us like never before while simultaneously tearing our social fabric apart – perhaps the other great irony of our times.
Given the tendency of the internet to make our speech bigger and amplify our differences, it’s no surprise that students also find it more difficult to express themselves freely online. Forty-two percent of students said it was harder to exchange ideas online than it was to do it in person. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of colleges switched to online education last year. The classroom has become virtual. Often times, these online courses have been recorded, at least producing the implicit threat of video evidence for any potential word crimes, and adding to the feeling that what you say can and will be used against you in public opinion court.
If free speech is a rarer commodity online than on a physical campus, it illustrates that the collegiate discourse controversies we often hear about are not unique to their campuses. On the contrary, it may be that college campuses are simply the tip of the sword that cuts our society into pieces of atomized ideological factions.
While there is no looking back when it comes to the divisive force of technology in our daily lives, higher education institutions have the power to push back this divide. If made a priority, college leaders can foster campus environments that foster healthy debate and encourage students to speak out and listen to one another. We know this is the case because our study found significant differences in student attitudes towards free speech across campuses.
Some colleges, as our rankings show, are doing a great job of countering the fearful spirit of our time. Their leaders actively defend freedom of expression, even when it is unpopular. In this way, they serve their students well. They cling to the noble mission of higher education and, who knows, maybe also prevent the demise of civilization.
Nathan Harden is the Education Editor for RealClearPolitics.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.