The "Teaching Effectiveness Gap"
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Free Speech versus Diversity on College Campuses

Indoctrination Replacing Intellectualism

I recently read a study on student attitudes on free expression that suggests students value a diverse and inclusive environment more than free speech rights. The report from Gallup and the Knight Foundation comes at a time when students have challenged the principles of the First Amendment by calling for controversial speakers to be disinvited. Students also have walked out on those they don’t want to hear – whose message may offend them – rather than engaging in an intellectual dialogue with those speakers. At the same time, students are calling on administrators to invest more in diversity initiatives and are demanding clear statements from them against speech they deem hateful. Much like the 1960s protests, students seek to make the agenda, decide on controversial issues, and use veiled threats to ensure their point of view is not only heard but adopted and pushed on other students not of a like mind. To use an old expression, it seems increasingly more likely that the inmates want to run the asylum, and administrations are expediting it.

Looking at the study, I can’t figure out why the researchers decided to ask the key question in either/or format. Asked to select which is more important, about 53% of the students picked diversity, versus 46% who chose free speech. Does this mean the researchers believe you can’t have both? That would be bizarre, to say the least. In fact, increased diversity should go hand in hand with increased free speech because you have a diverse group of students who want a forum to share their points of view.

Some of the results just make me sad for how slanted a university education has become. Roughly 57% of students thought that debate on political and social issues took place online rather than in person at their colleges (43%). It sounds like education occurs outside the classroom and crowding out of new ideas occurs inside the “hallowed halls.”

One result I can support is about 59% of students said people feared being attacked online for their views, up 10% from 2016. And 83% of students said that it is too easy for anonymous users to post online. This is, of course, a problem for all of us who use social media to express our points of view. Being attacked for what one says is counterproductive to developing an intellectual dialogue on controversial issues and makes it less likely we will be able to come to a common understanding about such issues and how to deal with them. A good example is immigration. We seem to talk past those with opposing views rather than engaging them in constructive dialogue.  Free speech

Back to the “I’m shaking my head in disbelief” results. Previous research into students’ beliefs on free expression found even when they respected the ideals of the First Amendment in theory, they did not always want to follow them in practice. Students were also unsure of the protections of the First Amendment offered, with many believing that it did not allow for hate speech (even though it often does). Moreover, 64% of students believe that the First Amendment shouldn’t protect hate speech. About 70% said that campuses should restrict certain slurs, and 30 percent believe they should prohibit some politically oriented speech. This is scary because it leads me to believe that the day may come in the future where a demagogue runs for President and wins because those who like the message become blinded to the negative and even harmful aspects of it.

It is imperative that universities open their minds to what is happening at many campuses. Free speech has given way to indoctrination and opposing views are being stifled wherever and whenever they arise. My fear is college curricula will follow suit and we’ll be left with courses that teach what the “prevailing wisdom” on campus is at that time rather than core values and constitutional mandates that have an historical bent to them and have stood the test of time, rather than teaching the flavor of the day.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 13, 2018. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website and sign up for the newsletter.