Free-speech advocates working to change the culture of college campuses have focused most of their attention on the campuses themselves. This work is necessary: Joseph Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently reported that 91 percent of the public institutions his organization assessed “maintain policies that restrict constitutionally protected expression.” However, most advocates’ work doesn’t address the problem upstream. Too many students arrive at universities unprepared for the free exchange of ideas and the contentious conversations that ensue—shortcomings that can be addressed only before high-school grads begin freshman orientation. Reforms that target the pre-college phase of the education continuum would not only complement but amplify the efforts aimed directly at campuses. The exciting news is that colleges themselves are uniquely positioned to stimulate reforms at the high school level that would ultimately help colleges accommodate viewpoint diversity and impassioned debate.
The College Application Process
The college application-and-acceptance process enables campuses, every single year, to decide which students will be invited to enroll. It is the straightforward way for institutions of learning to decide and declare which skills and attributes students must possess in order to succeed. Obviously, colleges use test scores and high school grades to assess academic preparedness; it would be a problem if students arrived unable to read or solve math problems. But they also use essays and letters of recommendation to understand how applicants write and how they think through issues; it would be a problem if students arrived full of facts but unable to contemplate, reason, and deduce. They also use a whole host of other factors, including legacy characteristics, racial and geographic diversity, family income, areas of interest, and extracurricular activities; it would be a problem if students arrived with identical beliefs and backgrounds.
It is striking how little talk there has been about using this same process to assess whether students have a disposition conducive to deliberative democracy. It is a problem if students arrive temperamentally unprepared for an environment premised on the free exchange of ideas. At minimum, a college president could ask the admissions office to flag applicants whose essays and/or letters of recommendation suggest hostility toward competing views. The same president could—so the school could better understand which characteristics are likeliest to forecast future anti-speech behavior—have administrators go back and look at the applications of current students and alumni who’ve, for instance, shouted down speakers while on campus. The lessons learned from this couple hours-worth of research could be surprising—perhaps they all attended the same set of high schools. Or the lessons might be, well, less surprising—perhaps they announced in their application essays that they were coming to college eager to shout down objectionable speakers.
But colleges shouldn’t be coy in their methods. The most straightforward way to address this issue is to explicitly ask prospective students in the application about their commitment to free inquiry. For example, a required essay prompt could ask applicants to explain how they would react were an objectionable speaker to come to campus or to describe what constitutes “hate speech” and what should be done about it. Each college would then have to decide on its own what to do with the results. Most colleges, for the sake of diversity of opinion, would probably want to admit some number of progressive students who are skeptical of the First Amendment because it privileges those with power, as well as some number of conservative students who bitterly oppose athletes’ kneeling during the National Anthem. But most colleges would probably not want to admit hundreds of students who feel a moral obligation to publicly degrade those of the opposite political party. At minimum, the asking and answering of free-speech questions would force administrators to grapple with the core issue: Does healthy campus life require incoming students to possess a modicum of support for the expression of differing opinions?
An interested college could revamp its application system on its own. Or a group of free speech-defending schools, perhaps instigated by the Mitch Daniels-led Purdue, could do this together to set the standard and prove the concept. But more than 800 institutions of higher education currently use a common application—including campuses that have had speech-related kerfuffles, like Evergreen, Middlebury, and Yale. The common application has enabled students to apply to multiple schools via a streamlined process. The most recent version included a series of essay prompts on subjects such as how applicants understand their identities, challenge ideas or beliefs, and overcome obstacles. If higher education took speech seriously, one or more questions could focus on the merits of free inquiry. That way, every year, about one million prospective students and thousands of campus leaders would take part in a conversation about speech, curiosity, courage, tolerance, and compromise. Using the application process in this way would not only significantly influence the campus climate in the short term, it could have an even larger and longer-term influence through its upstream effects.
High School Civics
There is a reason why so many high school students take Advanced Placement courses, aim to earn sky-high GPAs, strive to ace the SAT or ACT, and lead extracurricular clubs. And—I’m sorry to pull back the veil—it’s not only because students want to grow academically and socially. It’s because college admissions offices have made clear that they care about these things. As a result, a vast array of supports have emerged to help students improve in these areas. High schools try to maximize the number of AP courses offered and districts pay for students to take AP exams, firms provide SAT-prep classes, nonprofits make tutoring available, and teachers agree to sponsor various after-school clubs. State leaders also adjust high school graduation requirements to align with the demands of higher education. For instance, states now routinely tout their K-12 standards and assessments as supporting the goal of “college- and career-readiness.”
In short, because so many adults believe that going to college is so important, they creatively and energetically help students meet the expectations of college admissions officers. If institutions of higher education made it abundantly clear that “college readiness” included students’ commitment to respecting free inquiry and open debate, then high schools, families, and other actors in civil society would mobilize to prepare young people accordingly.
There are already institutional structures in place that can be used to do this work. The most obvious are the high school courses on history and civics, the state standards that define what ought to be taught, and the state and local assessments that measure what students have learned. This infrastructure already exists in every state, but the details vary from place to place—what’s taught, when it’s taught, what’s prioritized, how it’s tested. There needn’t be a centralized national effort to overhaul and make uniform what states, districts, and schools do. By simply announcing that they are prioritizing the appreciation of free inquiry, colleges can spur state and local leaders to devise their own solutions.
Even if we weren’t facing this campus problem, there’d still be reason to refocus on civics.
According to the “Nation’s Report Card” (a widely administered and reliable federal exam), in 2014, only 23 percent of eighth-graders reached proficiency on the civics test. A recent Education Week survey found that more than half of principals and other school administrators believe schools aren’t focusing enough on civics. Another survey found that citizens aren’t confident that students are learning the civics topics that citizens believe to be most essential. The good news is that state leaders appear primed to act: NPR recently reported that more than half of state legislatures considered proposals during their last sessions to expand civics education.
Many experts believe a proper civics education should include instruction related to knowledge, skills, and dispositions. For example, students should appreciate human dignity and individual rights, understand why our government is structured as it is, know what happened in 1787 and 1865, know how and why to volunteer and vote, possess a sense of civic responsibility, and so on. Though all of these are obviously important, given what we’re seeing on campus, it may be wise to dedicate more time and energy to a particular area of knowledge and disposition: why free inquiry is indispensable, what the First Amendment means, what happens when debate is stifled, why pluralism is valuable, and why political tolerance is essential. The K-12 education system can course-correct to a new bearing if higher education sets the destination.
Unsurprisingly, efforts to reform history and civics curricula stir passions. Just about any shift in how an historical event is described or how a governing principle is explained will cause some number of people to charge that partisanship and politics motivated the acting state agency, school board, or teacher. And some could worry that college students’ ambivalence about key American governing principles are fostered in K-12. But the results of a 2010 survey of high school history and social studies teachers offer encouragement. The vast majority of these teachers believe that the United States is unique and stands for something special in the world, and only one percent want students to learn that the United States is fundamentally flawed. In good news for viewpoint diversity, more than three-quarters said it was absolutely essential for high schools to teach students to be tolerant of those who are different. And these teachers are so committed to their students’ learning this content that 93 percent want social studies to be part of their state’s testing system.
In a 2011 paper that compared and contrasted citizens’ and social studies teachers’ views, Daniel K. Lautzenheiser, Andrew P. Kelly, and Cheryl Miller reported that teachers and citizens alike rank teaching students to be activists who challenge the status quo toward the bottom of their list. Teachers and citizens both, however, place at the top of their lists teaching students to be able to identify the protections in the Bill of Rights, which obviously includes the freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly.
Importantly, citizens prefer students be taught facts and concepts, and they appear leery of educators focusing on civic behaviors. In fact, about half of the citizens polled worry that social studies teachers use the classroom to push their personal views. Interestingly, the data show this is a bipartisan concern. The authors write, “Democrats and Republicans do not necessarily agree on much, but they seem to be equally reticent to have high school teachers promoting civic behaviors in the classroom.” A nudge from higher education to prioritize the importance of free speech and debate could thread this political needle: Educators can teach the value of viewpoint diversity and unfettered expression and stay away from telling students which diverse views to hold or express.
Critics have worried about campus environments for decades. From Bill Buckley’s God and Man at Yale in 1951 to anger at the protest culture in the late 1960s to Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind in 1987 to incredulity at “PC” culture in the 1990s to today. It simply seems to be a law of nature that young adults, professors, and the college ethos combine into a combustible admixture for polite society. But what’s happening today seems to be more than youthful rebellion, and it seems to be causing more harm than merely scandalizing bourgeois sensibilities.
Surveys of today’s college students do reveal troubling views on speech. For example, a 2017 Knight Foundation/Gallup survey found that when students were asked which was more important, promoting an inclusive society that is welcoming to diverse groups or protecting citizens’ free speech rights, a majority chose the former. Students were almost perfectly divided between favoring and opposing “speech codes” (which FIRE defines as college prohibitions on expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large), and 61 percent agreed that their campus climate prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find those things offensive. But contrary to the popular narrative that Millennials are the problem and/or that faculty are to blame, it appears that the next wave of students, often called “Generation Z,” are the outliers.
In a recent interview, New York University professor Jonathan Haidt—who is also chairman and co-founder of Heterodox Academy, a coalition of professors and graduate students that promotes viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement—emphasized that campus behavior seems to have changed significantly as these students entered college for the first time in the last several years. “The wave of activism that began in 2015,” he argued, “was entirely student-driven.” It’s hard to know what role, if any, high school civics education might’ve played. Perhaps the increased polarization of politics in recent years influenced teachers, or maybe the valorization of student protests caused educators to elevate the virtues of certainty and activism over those of humility and deliberation. But given that millions of more Generation Z students are scheduled to arrive on campus in the years ahead, college speech problems could, unless we act, get worse.
Haidt smartly emphasized what college leaders’ could do now to address the challenges at hand, arguing, “If university leaders would state clearly the goals and values of a university when students arrive, and make it clear that actions such as shouting down a speaker are very serious violations of academic values and will be treated the same as plagiarism—possibly leading to expulsion—then there would be fewer such events.” But Haidt and his co-author Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of FIRE, also encourage campuses to think about incoming students, encouraging leaders to show a preference for older students who are prepared for independence and to admit more graduates of schools that teach ‘intellectual virtues’ and enable students to practice debate.
In their 2015 article for the Atlantic “The Coddling of the American Mind” and a new book of the same name, Haidt and Lukianoff recognize that the college problem starts way before orientation. For a host of interrelated reasons—including being overprotected by parents, unpracticed at reasonable risk-taking, and surrounded by social polarization and social media—many young adults are over-trained at seeking safety, under-trained at navigating conflict and stress, and over-associate words with violence. This helps explain why some students deem so much to be offensive, aim to rid their campuses of offensive things, and require supports and interventions should offensive items sneak past such defenses. But it may also help explain students’ worrisome rates of anxiety and depression. It is not too alarmist to wonder if “safetyism” is gradually grooming a generation to be psychologically fragile young adults, which is manifesting itself in today’s campus behavior. And it is not too judgmental to believe that some campuses, by creating the hermetic, antiseptic, therapeutic environments that students are demanding, may be exacerbating the underlying problem and helping it spread into the workplace and beyond.
But our criticism of college administrators should be measured. They can’t be held accountable for societal factors out of their control, which influence students years before they arrive on campus. And we should recognize that higher education leaders care deeply about forming the next generation of citizens, workers, innovators, entrepreneurs, and scholars. So campus reforms should be framed as good not just for free speech, but for the mental health and professional development of America’s young people. Lastly, we should emphasize the wonderful opportunity available to colleges in this moment. They are uniquely positioned, thanks to the outsize influence of their admissions policies, to prompt high schools, families, and other civil society bodies to make some necessary changes.
And it can all begin with a simple statement from a group of college presidents: “To do our job, our campuses need curious, open-minded, politically tolerant, and emotionally robust students. From this point forward, our application and admissions process will reflect that expectation.”