Many Liberal Arts Students Need a Lesson in Free Speech

They are both more accepting of attempts to silence speech and overwhelmingly more liberal than their public and private university counterparts, argues Samuel J. Abrams.

October 28, 2021
 
 
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I was trained at big research universities and have had the pleasure of teaching at large universities over the years, but I have spent most of my career as a professor at Sarah Lawrence College -- a small liberal arts college famous for its political activism and engagement. When I first arrived here, I immediately noticed that smaller, teaching-focused liberal arts schools often had student bodies far more passionate and politically active than those at larger universities. In fact, when many of us think about the recent rise of student protests over issues of identity and speech around the nation, institutions like Oberlin, Middlebury and Evergreen State Colleges first come to mind.

Do attitudes toward speech and political leanings, in fact, differ across various types of institutions of higher education? New data from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, RealClear Education and College Pulse provide empirical insight into this question. Their recently released survey about speech on college campuses captures the voices of more than 37,000 students at 159 colleges. The data reveal that students at small liberal arts colleges are both more accepting of attempts to silence speech and overwhelmingly more liberal than their public and private university counterparts.

The survey looks at student opinion on campuses across the higher education spectrum, from small liberal arts colleges such as Macalester and Colby Colleges to varied university types that range from more teaching-centered universities like California State University, Los Angeles, to large research institutions like Stanford and Northwestern Universities. The survey asked students how often they censored themselves out of concern for how a professor, the administration or a student would respond to their ideas, questions or views, and found rough parity across all institutional types. According to my calculations, more than half of the students at liberal arts colleges (52 percent) and big research universities (53 percent) reported silencing themselves occasionally or more frequently, along with 52 percent of students at more teaching-focused universities. That suggests that no institutional type is immune from the omnipresent wave of cancel culture so pronounced on campuses today.

Yet more substantive divergence occurs when reactions to speech are considered. When asked about the acceptability of shouting down and protesting a speaker, three-quarters of students at liberal arts colleges (75 percent) said they believed such behavior is acceptable on certain occasions, based on my analysis. At teaching universities, that number dropped to 62 percent. Almost half (44 percent) of liberal arts students maintained that shouting down a speaker is always or sometimes acceptable, compared to about a third (32 percent) of those at large research universities.

A similar and more troubling pattern emerges on the issue of preventing one’s peers from hearing a speaker’s potentially controversial ideas. In the case of liberal arts colleges, over half (52 percent) of students sampled found a reason to justify blocking their peers from hearing a speaker talk, compared to roughly a third of students at large teaching (37 percent) and research (41 percent) universities.

Explaining these differences is no easy task. One possible reason could be that liberal arts colleges tend to be more humanities-focused and concentrate more on social justice questions and pedagogies. Sarah Lawrence, for example, prides itself on being “built on a legacy of political activism and social justice.” These colleges may be more likely to fixate on political engagement and maintain the idea that some issues cannot be discussed and debated.

Another possibility could be the fact that liberal arts campuses have significantly fewer conservative students. My study of the survey data reveals that 52 percent of students at liberal arts colleges identify as strong or weak Democrats compared to just 6 percent who state that they are strong or weak Republicans. Independents and leaners make up about 30 percent of the student body. Another 13 percent are something else entirely. This is hardly representative of the nation’s political makeup and suggests that liberal arts students may tend to live in a bubble and be exposed to little real viewpoint diversity.

In comparison, 13 percent of students at large research universities identify as Republican -- twice the number of those at liberal arts colleges. A little more than a third of students (37 percent) at these large universities identify as Democrats, with 42 percent being somewhere in the middle: a far more balanced and centrist situation than what is present at liberal arts colleges today. Moreover, at teaching-focused universities -- places like San Diego State and Rowan Universities -- the numbers look even better for centrism. Just 30 percent of students at teaching universities identify as Democrats, with 16 percent being Republican and 43 percent stating they are Independents or leaners.

These data demonstrate that liberal arts colleges have student bodies that are notably distinct from universities’. Their students are far more likely to be Democrats and are much more open to limiting the exchange of ideas and discourse than their university counterparts.

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Colleges and universities have long served as robust marketplaces of ideas. Many institutions today preach the gospel of inquiry and diversity. But the data make it abundantly clear that a number of liberal arts colleges will fail to live up to those goals if their student bodies genuinely believe they can and should limit their peers’ exposure to a diverse array of narratives and views, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

Liberal arts schools can take a number of real steps to move their educational missions and minds of students forward. One of the first would be to insist that orientation programs and classes teach about viewpoint diversity and truly illustrate how reason, debate and discourse are supposed to work. That is, they should model the ideal and the thrill of ideas in their classrooms, in campuswide debates, at events with viewpoint-diverse speakers and the like -- and show how difference actually leads to discovery and acceptance of diversity.

Another step involves making sure that more scientists, engineers and business-focused college personnel are a greater presence on campus. People with such backgrounds tend to sync up with the interests of various students and bring in drastically alternative values from those in the humanities who now frequently dominate.

Finally, colleges would benefit from very clear guidelines about speech with actually enforced penalties when educational activities are interrupted and the ability of other students to learn and engage is threatened and limited. Of course, this all depends on boards and presidents who have the strength to fight off social media mobs, threats and condemnation and actually implement change to allow for real speech and learning. Recent incidents, sadly, do not suggest that they will.

Bio

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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