The Really Boring, Non-Cancel Culture War Truth about “Free Speech” in College Classrooms
The free speech, cancel culture, deplatforming, self-censorship debate about academia is well-trodden, so I hope readers forgive me for the lack of set-up. I rather get straight into it.
I think we fetishize debate, particularly in academia, in ways that just aren’t realistic. This discourse is more often than not discourse between elites about a handful of classes at a handful of elite universities, and doesn’t reflect the everyday, mundane and unsexy material reality of what happens in the vast majority of college classrooms around America (or the West) the vast majority of time.
To start, most professors teach classes focused on applied knowledge, basic facts and concepts, etc. Depending on the class (Philosophy versus Geology versus World History versus Video Editing versus Gender Studies), there’s a small chance that argumentative topics don’t even arise. But even when they do, this likely won’t be until maybe near the end of the semester. To illustrate this idea, I taught a News Reporting class. I’m not suggesting that there is no room for students to debate in that class. But I am saying that the most heated debate is much more likely to be about what makes the best headline for a news story than a charged debate about whether or not MSNBC is the equivalent to Fox News.
I use this to illustrate the point that in most classes over the course of the semester, debate isn’t something that’s happening outside of specific instances. In the event that debates do happen, most professors guide the conversation — make sure students are working with the same definitions of terms, try to bring it back when it gets too tangential, etc. The only pushback tends to come when students get objective facts wrong and/or give very bad reasoning. This is rare, since students’ opinion is usually reasonable or the topic is too subjective for “wrong”answers per se. And in the rare chance that debate happens, it’s more in the deliberative and conversational sense—one student has one opinion, another student has another, and we move on after a couple of rounds — not the pugilistic sense.
While I was in college, grad school and during my time as a professor, it’s just not my experience that professors make classes ideologically rigid and not conducive for debate — whether they are arguing over the meaning of a poem, interpreting U.S. foreign policy, who is the best contemporary writer, if structure or culture is a better explanation for social problems, or where Sigmund Freud‘s psychoanalytical theories about dreams were plausible.
The Discourse (when in good faith) is concerned with building an academic environment where debate is rigorous, but respectful. But something I humbly but vehemently think is students don’t always voice their opinions for way simpler reasons than pundits claim. Everything isn’t the Culture War.
That “liberal” professor y’all swear is silencing conservative students and indoctrinating everyone else into little Marxists can’t even get most students to read the syllabus. Or not stare at their phone. Or raise their hand to give any opinion, much less a politicized one. Or get a third of the class to read a third of the readings. Or to not web-surf during lectures. Or come to office hours.
Though I think this would deserve a separate essay, many people who seek or sought out debate in college often have a certain personality type, major and affluent background. In my experience, they aren’t always the heroes and high-minds people think they are (and I’ll leave that there). The average student is likely in class worrying about paying their tuition and if the degree is worth the massive debt, not boiling over inside cause their professor is too “liberal” and a queer student demands to be referred to using “they” pronouns.
My last point is that when culture war discourse about “self-censorship” arises, the “anti-woke” across the spectrum who decry “cancel culture” never talk about the utterly common self-censorship most “liberal” professors engage in—for fear of reprisal by conservative students or professors, or popular Substack columnists amplifying their words into the mediasphere. Most “liberal” professors are just trying to do their job, further their career, grow their expertise and build sustainable lives. They value real intellectual deliberation over the spectacle of debate. And if you think “liberal” professors aren’t careful about what they say in class, you likely have never read student evaluations, or had to make the tough decision between telling the truth and getting called biased, or providing balance but creating false equivalencies.
This my only time being overtly polemic, but it can feel like conservatives and the “anti-woke” across the political spectrum turn every little thing into a battle in the Culture War and a slippery slope of the fall of Western civilization. For its purported majesty and fortitude, why do we treat it like a sandcastle? But the most frustrating thing about this discourse is none of this works the way y’all think it does (and this essay is mostly only surface level. I didn’t even get into some of the deeper issues). And it often works in very mundane, boring reasons that don’t get written about in the New York Times, the Atlantic or the National Review.