Over the past few years, we have seen a growing concern in public discourse about free speech on college campuses in the United States. The familiar narrative labels college-aged students “snowflakes” who don’t like discomfort and therefore expect colleges to be intellectual “safe spaces” in which their ideological bubbles are left intact.
This, the story goes, is creating a crisis of free speech in American higher education. The proposed solution for that crisis, according to many critics, is to bring high-profile, controversial speakers to campuses to somehow break through the echo chambers -- an ideological “exposure therapy” of sorts.
Often missing in that narrative are the voices of students themselves. That absence became increasingly salient for me after Charles Murray’s visit to my campus last year. As I spoke with my students in the fallout from those events, I found that many of them had complex reactions that didn’t fit the simplistic “free speech vs. inclusion/diversity” dichotomy that has become dominant in such discussions.
In response, since last summer, I have been working with undergraduate researchers on a study entitled “Middlebury Students Engaging Across Difference.” We developed an online survey that was completed by 80 undergraduates, from first years through seniors. We then drew from those findings to develop a protocol for more in-depth, one-on-one interviews with 19 students.
Here’s some of what we’ve found thus far:
Students want to engage with ideological difference. As many as 89 percent of all survey participants, including 83 percent of left-leaning students (who made up 71 percent of the sample), said that it was “important” or “very important” to them to have conversations about controversial issues with people who have a viewpoint distinct from their own. A number of participants talked about the relationship between engaging across difference and their personal growth. As one explained, “It’s important to value putting in the effort to know someone whose values are different from yours. If you are stuck in a bubble, there is no room to grow as a person.” Students who were “neutral” about the importance of such conversations cited concerns about lack of purpose or productivity for the conversation rather than a disinterest in engaging other viewpoints.
Many students (58 percent) are having such conversations on at least a weekly basis. We asked those we surveyed to note all of the locations where such interactions tend to occur. They reported that they are more prevalent over a meal (78 percent) or in the residence halls (65 percent) than in classrooms (53 percent) or at public lectures (38 percent).
The majority (almost 80 percent) reported that such conversations, when they do occur, can be difficult to navigate. Many survey participants said the discussion too quickly devolves into a debate where, as one put it, “We’re talking at people instead of with them.” An interviewee said it’s easy to forget to “see the person as a person and not just a clump of ideas.” Students expressed a keen desire for interactions centered on empathy -- not just “being right.” Many said they don’t feel heard, but they also admitted that they struggle to listen fully to others as well.
One prevalent barrier to productive interaction is confusion about goals and responsibilities. Many students indicated that they have absorbed some confusing messages about speaking and silence. They have been taught that in some situations -- for instance, as a bystander to bullying -- silence equals complicity. As a result, they worry that simply listening, without offering a rebuttal, might be interpreted as tacit support for a particular viewpoint. Hence, while they may want to “just listen,” they feel tremendous pressure to “speak out.”
Some participants acknowledged that this pressure to speak hinders empathy and understanding. One admitted that at times, feeling empathy with someone who has a view that is “crazy, absurd, mean or hateful … scares me because I feel like I am agreeing with this hateful thing.” Another said, “Calling people out does need to happen, but [I’m] also realizing that that’s not the solution every time.”
A further complication is that fear of social marginalization is pervasive, particularly on a small, residential campus like ours. “The fear of ostracization is terrifying … of being the only one and a social outcast,” one interviewee explained. Some students claimed that this fear created a dynamic of “bandwagoning” in which “many people just seem to agree with one another for the sake of having the correct opinion.” One student framed the situation as “rhetorical gymnastics.”
Unsurprisingly, some students decide only to engage in these conversations with close friends, recognizing that probably limits the range of perspectives represented since “ friend groups … often have similar ideas and opinions [as] mine.” Others feel differently: “I do not want to create a conflict with friends,” one said, adding, “It is also difficult to be in a relationship with someone when you disagree on most things political.” Students in this latter group expressed a preference for conversations in a more structured environment like the classroom.
Perhaps some readers will see these findings as nothing more than a confirmation of the “snowflake” narrative. But I see much more going on: students want to engage deeply and productively with ideological difference, and many are aware of the barriers to that sort of engagement. Our first step as educators must be to acknowledge that these challenges exist and to talk about them openly with students and colleagues.
What else can be done? This research suggests that our institutional resources should be invested not just in the what of ideological difference but in the how. Perhaps some of the money and energy spent on bringing high-profile speakers to campus should be devoted to creating opportunities for more small-group dialogue about those speakers’ ideas and students’ reactions to them. We also need to see empathetic listening as skill set to be taught, not just as a disposition students are expected to develop on their own. One central component of that skill set is the capacity for self-questioning: What do I hope to gain from this conversation? What assumptions am I bringing? How can I respect the humanity of the people with whom I am in dialogue? Of course, we as educators are often lacking in this area, as can be attested by anyone who has taken part in a highly contentious faculty meeting. Faculty members need not only professional development in how to create the conditions for productive dialogue: we also need to consider how we might engage differing viewpoints more productively among ourselves.
In recent years, my institution has been piloting a number of initiatives aimed at cultivating the skills necessary for engaging across difference. All our first-year students are required to attend a daylong workshop in which they discuss “race and other difficult topics.” We have begun offering occasional meals in which students, staff and faculty engage in “deliberative dialogue.” We are also exploring ways to bring restorative practices into student life.
Those efforts have not yet been integrated systematically into the classroom, however -- nor are they prioritized (yet) in the academic curriculum. We need a comprehensive approach to creating a community of thoughtful listeners who are willing and prepared to engage productively with ideological difference. That could include courses or workshops on topics such as civil dialogue, empathetic listening and intercultural competence. Faculty members could form professional learning communities in which they share strategies and resources for engaging students in difficult conversations. The administration could request -- or even require -- that major co-curricular events (keynotes, symposia and the like) be accompanied by opportunities for small-group discussion and/or personal reflection before or after the event.
Of course, our students will also be able to tell us what they need, if given the opportunity. We must make “engaging across difference” an explicit pedagogical focus, if we wish to achieve the ideal of free speech in higher education.