Free speech and academic freedom in American education are once again under attack, from both the right and the left. The tactics differ, with the right relying more on state power -- legislation and executive orders -- and the left on social norms and peer pressure. At the moment, the principal threats come from the right, often and ironically under the banner of protecting free speech and viewpoint diversity. Whatever their source and motivation, these efforts to curtail free speech and academic freedom present a great and growing danger to the freedom of inquiry that is central to liberal education and essential to cultivating the informed citizenry on which American democracy depends.
Activist conservative groups have for years monitored and reported on instances of perceived liberal excess on college campuses, particularly in the classroom. Critiques of progressive faculty periodically go viral, leading to torrents of hate mail and online abuse. This right-wing "outrage machine" in itself has a chilling effect on disfavored campus speech.
A more direct threat comes from a recent series of state laws that prohibit discussion of systemic racism and related concepts at both the K-12 and public university levels. Conservative legislators in six states have already restricted or prohibited the teaching of vaguely termed "divisive concepts," and similar efforts are underway in at least 20 other states. The Florida Department of Education, for example, has banned the teaching of critical race theory, any classroom use of the New York Times' 1619 Project (an effort to put slavery at the center of American history), and any discussion of "American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence." In Montana, students "may not be forced to 'reflect,' 'deconstruct,' or 'confront' their racial identities." And in Arizona, school districts may be fined and teachers may be suspended or deprived of their teaching certifications if they use public funds "for instruction that presents any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex."
These laws -- and the penalties attached to them -- represent an escalation in an ongoing struggle to shape Americans' understanding of our country's history, institutions, and values. The national movement for racial justice that swept the United States following George Floyd's murder last summer engendered heated debate over whether and to what extent racism is embedded in American history and institutions, how racism should be acknowledged and combatted, and who bears responsibility for ongoing racial discrimination and injustice.
At colleges, universities, and K-12 institutions across the country, educators have responded by introducing anti-racist training for employees and anti-racist courses and educational programs for students. Excesses in some of these initiatives have opened the door to scathing criticism. Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who has played a leading role in the current uproar over critical race theory, cites several examples, such as a California elementary school reportedly telling third-graders to "rank themselves according to their 'power and privilege'" and Missouri school diversity trainers asking teachers "to locate themselves on an 'oppression matrix'" and identifying white heterosexual men as "inherently oppressors [who] must atone for their 'covert white supremacy.'"
To critics, many but not all of whom are politically conservative, such attempts to pursue an antiracist agenda represent left-wing indoctrination that falsely paints the United States as an inherently racist society, misrepresents American history and divides the country on the basis of race. The report of President Trump's Advisory 1776 Commission reflects this attitude with its claims that colleges and universities "are often today hotbeds of an anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship" -- and that teachers at all levels "peddle resentment and contempt" by telling America's story "solely as one of oppression and victimhood" and advancing "claims of systemic racism that can only be eliminated by more discrimination."
Some approaches to antiracist education and training can be legitimately criticized. However, attempts to ban discussion of critical race theory, a label often mistakenly used as a catch-all for pretty much everything critics dislike about progressives' antiracist agenda, or other "divisive concepts" are deeply misguided.
Politicians should not tell educators how to teach or politicize curricular decisions. Teachers at all levels should be free to examine in age-appropriate ways and from a variety of perspectives how racism has shaped American history and society. Attempts to insist on a particular version of history or preclude discussion of controversial topics will hinder educators' ability to teach students to think critically and to present a fair and accurate account of subjects essential to students' understanding of society and their place in it. As numerous leading educational associations put it in a recent joint statement, "Educators owe students a clear-eyed, nuanced, and frank delivery of history so that they can learn, grow, and confront the issues of the day, not hew to some state-ordered ideology." This is particularly true at the college and university level, where free speech and academic freedom are at the core of the educational mission.
Progressives would do well to remember this when tempted to disinvite conservative speakers, implement campus speech codes, or suppress conservative viewpoints through ostracization or social media mobbing. With increasing frequency, students self-censor on hot-button topics, with 31 percent of campus Democrats and 48 percent of Republicans reporting a reluctance to speak their minds in a 2020 survey. Polls by the Knight Foundation and others suggest that while college students generally support free speech, more than 40 percent thinks speech that targets underrepresented groups does not warrant protection.
While it's understandable that many students, and some faculty, would prioritize inclusion over free speech, the current legislative assault on "divisive concepts" is an important reminder that any erosion of free inquiry and expression poses grave risks. As the journalist Sydney J. Harris once put it: "The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows." We can often learn the most from those with whom we vigorously disagree, but only if we are given -- and take -- the opportunity.