Tripod Editorial: Academic Self-Censorship: How Does Trinity Fare?

Recently, Emma Camp, a senior at the University of Virginia published an interesting opinion in the New York Times entitled “I Came to College Eager to Debate. I Found Self-Censorship Instead.” She described how, in arriving at college, she sought “an environment that champions intellectual diversity and rigorous disagreement” but instead found “strict ideological conformity” where “[s]tudents of all political persuasions hold back…from saying what we really think.” She provided many illustrative anecdotes from across the political spectrum, also citing survey data which found that “Forty-eight percent of undergraduate students described themselves as ‘somewhat uncomfortable’ or ‘very uncomfortable’ with expressing their views on a controversial topic in the classroom.”

Ultimately, Camp acknowledges that while “universities cannot change our social interactions,” we must foster “a campus culture that prioritizes ideological diversity and strong policies that protect expression in the classroom.” She also endorses some institutional policies that, while well-intentioned, would likely have little effect on self-censorship including no disinvitation of controversial speakers and removing college speech codes and bias response teams. This opinion raises many important and fundamental questions about higher education that can be applied to Trinity. Does Trinity—and do Trinity students for that matter—foster an environment of intellectual diversity and free expression of ideas? 

This is by no means an easy question to answer. The Student Integrity Contract states that “excellence in liberal arts education relies on critical thinking, freeing the mind from parochialism and prejudice, and encouraging students to lead examined lives. Free inquiry and free expression are essential for the attainment of these goals.” While this is a clear endorsement of free inquiry and expression, the Administration has generally failed in recent years to offer a strong endorsement of these principles. One potential means of doing so would be to adopt the “Chicago Statement,” a free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago in 2015. It is unclear, though, whether the faculty or student body would wholeheartedly endorse these principles. 

That students feel free to openly express their opinions is essential for effective learning and for the development of critical thinking, particularly at a small liberal arts college like Trinity. So I ask you, students of Trinity, do you feel you can freely express your ideas and views in class? Or do you feel you have to censor yourself out of fear, whether that be from the professor or other students? We would implore the College to conduct a formal survey to attempt to answer these and related questions. One good option would be the Campus Expression Survey developed and validated by Heterodox Academy, an organization whose mission is “to improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement.”

Some may raise the objection, “what is so bad about students censoring themselves?” After all, we censor ourselves all the time; we act, speak, and behave differently depending on the social group we are interacting with. While it is certainly true that we censor ourselves all the time, the classroom environment is distinct in that it requires the unhindered free flow of ideas, from all viewpoints, to ensure that individuals can actually develop intellectually, rather than be stuck in an echo chamber free from contrary or controversial ideas and opinions. It is when the normal and appropriate self-censorship bleeds into the classroom setting that an issue arises. 

It is also important to consider what factors motivate self-censorship in the classroom, and how each can be addressed to promote free, open inquiry. One potential driving factor is the way in which professors conduct discussions and how they treat dissenting opinions. It is likely that, generally speaking, Trinity professors handle discussions fairly, giving respect to and addressing multiple viewpoints surrounding a given issue – though this could vary significantly across academic departments. The other key potential driving factor behind academic self-censorship is social pressure. Students could very well refrain from sharing their views due to fear of social consequences from other students in the classroom. This is understandable; No one wants to be the odd one out. Assuming there is a degree of self-censorship at Trinity, we urge all students to consider the importance of viewpoint diversity. Share your opinion in spite of potential fears, engage in constructive, back-and-forth debate on controversial issues. If we cannot freely discuss and debate ideas of great importance then class discussions will simply be a one-sided waste of time.

-DJN

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