Last week’s wrangling over whether the right-wing social and political commentator Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at the University of California, Berkeley is just the latest episode in a long line of student attempts to silence conservative speakers invited to speak on campus: a series that began when Coulter herself was attacked with a cream pie at the University of Arizona in 2004. Other recent recipients of such treatment include former CIA director John Brennan, political commentator Ben Shapiro and former Breitbart News senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos.
Just as routine have become the claims that higher education is the root cause of such behaviour. After the conservative psychologist Charles Murray was shouted down (and a professor appearing alongside him attacked) at Middlebury College in March, for instance, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni blamed ideological conformity on campus. New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan compared the liberal curriculum to a religion. And the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger even suggested that a “creeping McCarthyism” was at work in academia.
This is just scapegoating. Some academics are complicit with the silencing of some speakers – just as some academics were complicit when other academics were being silenced by actual McCarthyism. But events such as those at Middlebury are largely an expression of the world that higher education is part of.
Students don’t come to us as blank slates. They come to us with powerfully preformed attitudes and beliefs; I wish that I had the level of control over my own students that critics seem to think I have. We may help to shape how they articulate their ideals, but seldom do we alter their core beliefs in four short years. Indeed, research suggests that we have no effect whatsoever on their political ideology.
Moreover, while my students are generally intelligent, engaged and thoughtful about the world (when pressed), persuading them to go to see a campus speaker is normally beyond my power – unless I offer extra credit. Many things compete for their time and attention. If they are interested in attending an event with an outside speaker – or even more so, protesting against it – it is because they were passionate about the topic before they walked into my classroom.
Most students spend more time consuming media than sitting in lectures or seminars. And the world they have grown up in and continue to engage with facilitates using media selectively, to avoid the cognitive dissonance (or uncomfortable self-doubt) that may come with considering ideas they disagree with.
This is also one of the fundamental reasons that US politics is arguably more polarised than ever before. On television or news websites, we can filter to see only the stories we are interested in. On social media, we are able to unfollow anyone who posts ideas counter to our own. We live in self-constructed echo chambers. Hence the potency of fake news.
Of course, media are not the only influences on how students engage with their world. But it should come as no surprise that a student who has grown up disinviting ideological difference on Facebook would want to disinvite ideological difference on campus (and I’ll point out that there are both conservative and liberal speakers on the database of “disinvitations” kept by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education).
Similarly, students have grown up with social media “trolls” shouting down differing views with harsh language rather than careful critique – and they are offered few counterexamples in the mainstream media.
But while academics are not to blame for the cultural factors that cause students to silence opposing views, we certainly have a role in addressing it. The place of civil protest on campus is unquestionable, but students also need to understand that there are times to stop chanting and to start talking.
John Stuart Mill argued that all education should be viewed as a “collision with error”. It is only by confronting difference and exposing ourselves to critique that we can truly be confident in our own ideas. In refusing to meaningfully engage with viewpoints they strongly disagree with, protesters deprive themselves and their peers of an important educational opportunity.
In addition to teaching ideas, it seems that we first need to teach our students how to discuss them. More higher education institutions need to offer argumentation, debate and civil discourse as foundational, general education classes. The impulses fostered by our polarised, filtered culture may be too ingrained to be overcome, but the costs are too high for us not even to try.
Maybe I’ll start by offering that extra credit.
Darren L. Linvill is an assistant professor in the department of communication at Clemson University in South Carolina.