Trustees | Freedom of Expression

“Harper’s” Open Letter & University Cancel Culture

THE IMAGINATIVE CONSERVATIVE   |  July 30, 2020 by Connor Murnane

Recently, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter signed by 153 academics, public intellectuals, and journalists, ranging from J.K. Rowling to David Brooks.[1] The three-paragraph letter warns against the illiberal “vogue for public shaming” that has destroyed countless careers in recent years. As we witness almost daily now, when the virtual mob descends, its purpose is to obliterate the reputation, credibility, and livelihood of a living, breathing person—all for the crime of venturing an unwelcome idea (or even venturing a permitted thought indelicately).

The letter rightly identifies the mania to suppress dissent as an effort to establish ideological conformity in the public sphere. The new inquisitors threaten the free exchange of ideas, which is, indeed, “the lifeblood of a liberal society.”

This brief letter could also have mentioned that this cultural affliction is not new; it did not emerge from, or even in response to, the Trump administration. Cancel culture has been fermenting on college campuses for decades and is now spilling into wider society.

In 1982, five years before he published The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom observed, “Today a young person does not generally go off to the university with the expectation of having an intellectual adventure, of discovering strange new worlds, of finding out what the comprehensive truth about man is…. And the university does not try to persuade him that he is coming to it for the purpose of being liberally educated, at least in any meaningful sense of the term—to study how to be free, to be able to think for himself.”

In 2010, an Association of American Colleges & Universities survey of 24,000 college students found that only 35.6% strongly agreed that “it is safe to hold unpopular views on campus.”[2] The state of free inquiry has deteriorated further in the decade since. A recent poll conducted by College Pulse for a forthcoming American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) report revealed that while fewer than 35% of students are aware of their campus’s policies governing free speech, 85% engage in self-censorship to avoid “offending other students” at least occasionally. (74% of self-identified “strong Republicans” do so “often” or “very often.”)

The implementation of draconian speech codes by campus bias response teams, diversity administrators, and assistant vice presidents of inclusion is traditionally blamed for disruption of free expression on America’s campuses. But the situation is yet worse. The survey found that fewer than 40% of students censor themselves due to fear of being disciplined by these campus institutions. It is the students themselves who have marshalled the immense power of social media to create the “cancel culture” monstrosity that is now impoverishing dialogue on their own campuses. Those who refuse to espouse today’s fashionable dogmas—or worse, dare to challenge them—pay a high social price reminiscent of a religious excommunication. The same ACTA survey notes that 48% of students believe the “pressure to conform to political correctness” hinders the development of friendships. In other words, today’s college students largely self-censor out of fear of social scorn from their peers rather than in response to campus speech codes.

This is not to say that higher education leaders are not also responsible for the culture of contempt and censure we see today. Over the decades, they have allowed for the development of a curriculum that cultivates this form of groupthink. General education programs—that once exposed students to topics outside of their own self-selected bubble and made American higher education the envy of the world—have also been eroded beyond recognition. Instead of introducing students to a canon of great works that present them with genuinely different ways of thinking and living, students are increasing permitted to choose courses that confirm their biases or interests from sprawling general education distribution categories. What sounds like autonomy actually permits students to alienate themselves from challenging ideas and enables them willfully to ignore difficult discussions. How ironic that in spite of ubiquitous talk of diversity, students are rarely presented views that challenge their opinions.

The number of universities requiring all students to study literature has dropped precipitously in recent years to a mere 32%.[3] Just one-third of our colleges believe that it is necessary for students to learn from the great authors who will outlive us all. This means that the lessons of Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and the great works of the 20th century no longer form a basis for common discussion among all students or for graduating classes over time—ties that can help bind alumni who graduate generations apart and enrich our mutual culture.

Although the workforce continues to globalize, few students are directed to complete an intermediate-level course in foreign language. This requirement is only found at 12% of our nation’s colleges.[4] The same can be said about the language of the universe, mathematics, which is only mandatory at 57% of universities.[5] Although in recent years we have faced two recessions, economics still suffers the worst fate, with only 3% of higher education institutions requiring the subject be taught to all students.[6] As universities continuously preach diversity, the subjects that can truly teach students to expand beyond their own borders and communicate with the world are forgotten.

Not only does this weak curriculum coupled with a culture of censorship harm our nation’s potential for informed deliberation and democratic self-governance, but, as the letter correctly notes, it harms our national discourse. Students must be immersed in a wide range of beliefs, opinions, and arguments, with many of which they will disagree. To be good citizens, they must learn that people of good will can disagree, that reasoned debate with them is possible (and indeed, fruitful), and that policy compromises can emerge from engaged deliberation.

Traditionally, a sense of shared purpose has been the best antidote to tribalism—whether along sectional, religious, or ideological lines. It is the best way for a people to learn the stories that tie them together, and by which a nation learns and remembers its identity and purpose. A shared sense of our country’s history and principles fosters informed deliberation and enables the citizenry to build a more perfect union.

Statesmen and politicians were once keenly aware that our society depends on broad civic understanding. The oft-canceled Thomas Jefferson, in planning the University of Virginia, considered it imperative that a public university “form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.” Colleges and universities should “expound the principles and structure of government.” But beyond this, Jefferson believed that public education should cultivate “a virtuous citizenry, actively engaged in public affairs and willing to place the common good ahead of self interest.”

This requires teaching students something about what citizens have in common—about our national heroes and triumphs, and about the injustices that remain to posterity to resolve. Unfortunately, few schools take civic education seriously today. Indeed, far from requiring careful examination of the country’s guiding principles and development, 82% of colleges and universities do not mandate a foundational survey course in U.S. government or history.[7]

Facts and a shared historical context set reasonable and informed boundaries for political debate, which helps to combat excessive partisanship and polarization. When Americans lack a basic understanding of their political system, it is easier to adopt extreme positions—positions fueled by emotion or partisan sentiment.

The lack of historical literacy among students coupled with a need to conform to peer opinion has all the potential to create a particularly noxious campus climate that is opposed to new and challenging ideas. And has inevitably seeped into the whole of society.

The bold yet solution-adverse signatories of the Harper’s letter are pointing us toward a world where the left and right side of the aisle can once again amicably communicate. Nowhere is this more important than on college campuses, where students should be immersed in a world of thought and discourse that pushes the boundaries of human understanding. Faculty and higher education leaders must take up this challenge and work to rebuild a thriving marketplace of ideas, in the classroom and on the quad.


[1] “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” Harper’s Magazine (July 2020).

[2] See Eric L. Dey, Molly C. Ott, Mary Antonaros, Cassie L. Barnhardt, and Matthew A. Holsapple, Engaging Diverse Viewpoints: What is the Campus Climate for Persepctive-Taking? (Washington: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2010).

[3] See here.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jennifer Harper, “‘Steady deterioration’: Only 18% of colleges now require students to take U.S. history and civics,” The Washington Times (September 2019).

The original source can be found here»


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