The Really Boring, Non-Cancel Culture War Truth about “Free Speech” in College Classrooms

Joshua Adams
4 min readMar 19, 2022

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…

Joshua Adams

Joshua Adams is a journalist from Chicago. UVA & USC. Taught media and communication at DePaul & Salem State. Twitter: @ProfJoshuaA