In a recent Washington Post article, Jeffrey Sachs cites a statistic by FIRE that roughly 87% of students generally feel comfortable expressing themselves on campus. Importantly, there is a 9 percentage-point partisan spread (Democrat students are more comfortable than Republicans) and a 14 percentage-point ideological spread (very liberal students are far more comfortable expressing themselves than very conservative students). Nonetheless, even a majority of “very conservative” students seem to generally feel comfortable expressing themselves.
On first blush, this sounds great. Yet, as I have previously argued, statements phrased in general terms like this fail to accurately capture the speech climate on campus. In fact, students seem to be substantially less comfortable expressing themselves, and more censorious of others, than the general population. The FIRE data does not disconfirm this picture. Instead, they help clarify what is driving self-censorship.
Most (59% of fourth-year) students did admit to having censored themselves in the classroom; additionally, a near-majority (48% of fourth-year students) have censored themselves on campus outside the classroom context. The most common reasons students gave for self-censoring included:
- Fear they might be wrong (53%)
- Fear students might judge them (48%)
- Fear of causing offense (30%)
Here, Sachs sees an exoneration: maybe it’s not such a bad thing if students hold their tongue if they think they might be wrong, or if they might offend others. It’s perfectly natural for students to want to fit in with one’s peers, and to avoid needlessly “rocking the boat.” However, the FIRE report seems to also suggest some areas for significant concern that cast the data Sachs cited in a less positive light.
For instance, when presented with options for how they would respond to views they disagree with, only 59% said they try to see where others are coming from. I say “only” 59% because respondents were allowed to choose as many response options as apply to them. Hence, a substantial minority of students – 41 percent — do not even try or aspire to understand views that conflict with their own; it’s not even part of their tool kit (let alone being their first reaction). And to be clear, we’re not talking about views that respondents find offensive – merely disagreeable (indeed, just over a third of respondents expressed a willingness to try to understand views they actually found offensive).
This seems like a significant failure for institutions of higher learning. The FIRE data suggests a pervasive lack of intellectual curiosity when students are confronted with views they find disagreeable – and also a lack of will or interest to constructively engage with those who see the world differently than they do.
The data further suggest that many students feel as though mistakes are unacceptable: rather than trying to test ideas they are uncertain about, they bite their tongue for fear they might be wrong. This is a problem because exploration of uncertain terrain is precisely how innovations come about. Indeed, science is primarily about learning from errors, failures and unexpected outcomes.
This is also how false ideas are corrected — by putting them on the table. To the extent that students bite their tongue and simply persist with false beliefs due to a perceived stigma around being wrong, this is really the worst of all worlds. Not only are self-censoring students missing an opportunity to learn and grow in the event they are wrong — but others who may hold similar beliefs are similarly deprived of a chance to deepen their understanding of the world.
Finally, many students expressed concern about being punished for expressing controversial ideas. Although Sachs is right to point out that there is not strong evidence suggesting professors punish students for controversial views (via grading), the FIRE data show that these concerns are well-placed with regards to one’s fellow students:
45% of students expressed that they would curtail future interactions with someone who said offensive things; almost a third would impose social sanctions just for others saying something they strongly disagreed with (but did not find offensive, hurtful or racist). This, again, suggests that a large percentage of the student body has not been taught the elementary skill of separating positions from people. Worse, it is widely understood among students that many of their peers fail to draw this distinction, and it leads them to self-censor.