The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Intern Blog: Emphasizing Intellectual Diversity

August 1, 2017

If recent events are any indication, the lack of free speech on college and university campuses is a crisis of the first order. Students wish to insulate themselves within their own social and ideological circles, shielding themselves from the possibility of encountering opposing ideas, and they ask their universities to enforce these new norms. This perpetuates school-sanctioned censorship and gives rise to required trigger warnings and official “safe spaces.”

Colleges and universities themselves have done very little to combat this—in fact, some even enable the culture of intolerance. Students desire safe spaces: areas of comfort, free from the voices they disagree with. They demand trigger warnings before hearing anything they might find academically or emotionally distressing. Instead of encouraging debate or even intellectual disagreement, professors often take a passive stance. But giving in to these demands can come at the cost of a well-rounded, diverse education. To provide safe spaces and trigger warnings is to stifle speech and foster an environment of intellectual homogeneity. When faculty and administrators take preferential stances on speech, students ultimately pay the price. Robbed of potential learning experiences, they lose the opportunity to broaden the scope of their ideas. With their own biases and views unchallenged, they do not learn how to critically evaluate or defend their opinions.

Academic experts are taking notice. Felice Nudelman, chief global officer for Partnerships and Innovation at Antioch University, discusses the challenges of safe spaces, identifying them as silos wherein students end up simply talking to themselves. This is a significant problem with the evolution of safe spaces: They provide escapes from the real world, which is fraught with opposing views, replacing it with a community of strictly like-minded ideas. Intellectual diversity is not encouraged or tolerated in such environments. And, as Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein—a well-known writer on modern behavioral economics—found that when individuals surround themselves with like-minded people, they are more likely to move to extremes. This type of polarization leads students to vehemently oppose unorthodox ideas. Rather than encouraging discussion among students, too many administrators and faculty facilitate environments of protection. These policies fracture the student body, leading some students to back down from voicing their opinions. They begin to believe that expression of certain unpopular ideas is somehow harmful or unacceptable.

Many universities make a point of emphasizing diversity; however, when they silence voices that may counter the majority of their students, they promote the opposite message—ideas must adhere to a predetermined orthodoxy and comfort and conformity should be prioritized over free speech. The consequences of this hostility towards free speech go deeper than disinviting speakers or requiring professors to provide trigger warnings before lecturing on controversial topics. It highlights the significant failure of higher education leadership to teach students how to productively engage criticism.

Faculty and administrators must rethink this paradigm that promotes safe spaces and censorship. The stakes are high; if we hope to raise a generation of wise and well-rounded leaders, then we must work to ensure that intellectual diversity and freedom are preserved on college campuses.

Every summer, ACTA is privileged to have several interns conduct research for the What Will They Learn?™ project. This is the second in a series of guest blogs written by our interns, who chose topics relevant to higher education. Sarah is a rising senior at Furman University where she is pursuing a double major in political science and philosophy.


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