Our system of higher education is in imminent risk. A trend that began as relatively anodyne expressions of political correctness has somehow been allowed to gain mass and momentum, and now threatens to overrun our most cherished educational traditions.
It wasn’t too long ago that we were able to joke about the seeming absurdity of things like microaggressions (small, innocuous actions or word choices that are interpreted as demeaning to a particular group) and trigger warnings (alerts that a speaker should give before delving into any topic that could upset a member of the audience). Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, writing for the Atlantic in 2015, demonstrate the quaint ridiculousness of those early days :
Some recent campus actions border on the surreal. In April, at Brandeis University, the Asian American student association sought to raise awareness of microaggressions against Asians through an installation on the steps of an academic hall. The installation gave examples of microaggressions such as “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” and “I’m colorblind! I don’t see race.” But a backlash arose among other Asian American students, who felt that the display itself was a microaggression. The association removed the installation, and its president wrote an e-mail to the entire student body apologizing to anyone who was “triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.”
But this climate of fragility grew quickly, eventually becoming institutionalized on many campuses, thereby ensuring its further metastastization.
The results have been frightening. Professors have been shouted down for all manner of innocuous beliefs. A Yale professor was berated, and eventually forced to resign, for arguing that students should self-police their Halloween costumes rather than cede that power to college administrators. Another liberal professor at Evergreen College left campus in fear for his life for expressing the belief that the color of a person’s skin shouldn’t determine their rights.
Sadly, violence is becoming a recurring theme. Conservative academics like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald were forced to abandon their talks after mobs formed and threatened them harm.
And where professors and students were once concerned about offering trigger warnings, the rhetoric has shifted to calls for out-and-out censorship of potentially disagreeable ideas. They’ve managed to do this under the guise of a pseudo-scientific belief that speech is sometimes violence, not as in verbal threats, but as in speech that is critical of members of a certain identity group. Put simply, this isn’t just ridiculous, it’s dangerous.
Unsurprisingly, this topsy-turvy culture, in which students are portrayed as so fragile as to be incapable of being presented with arguments with which they disagree, yet strong enough to lash out violently against those with carry the message, is having a deleterious effect on how professors teach and how students participate in their education.
Two years ago a liberal professor wrote that today’s higher education system perpetuates a “climate of fear” among professors due to the “heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity in which safety and comfort have become the ends and the means of the college experience.” As a result, he argued, he “comb[ed] through [his] syllabi and cut out anything [he] could see upsetting a coddled undergrad…”
Professors are not alone in their fear.
A recent survey created by Heterodox Academy, a group of college professors devoted to promoting a diversity of viewpoints on college campuses, was designed to measure students’ reluctance to speak up in class. They asked students about their reluctance to speak up about issues such as race, politics, gender, and even non-controversial topics, as well as what the students feared would happen if they spoke up, ranging from the professor saying the view is wrong to the professor lowering their grade to another student filing a complaint that the view violated campus harassment or conduct policy.
The Academy found significant reluctance among students to speak up about potentially controversial issues and these fears were greatest among conservatives and moderates.
Teachers who are afraid to teach and students who are afraid to speak up. Is this what we our higher education system to look like? Because that’s not an education, it’s a propaganda machine. So if colleges want to reestablish their incredibly vital mission they must fight to foster debate and discussion on their campuses through active steps to restore a diversity of viewpoints among their faculty.