Whatever students decide to study as another school year begins, they need to learn skills that are good for them both as workers and as citizens in a democratic society. Civic skills include respecting people with different points of view while being able to address disagreements with clarity and care.
One of the great things about going to college is meeting people who are different from oneself — whether it’s loving differently, identifying differently, looking different, coming from different places, or having different tastes and talents.
But often the the toughest diversity to deal with is encountering viewpoint diversity — talking to people with different ideas about politics, economics and society.
Of course that’s difficult, particularly in our contentious, polarized time. There’s lots of anger and all too much name-calling.
Given so much political animosity, some might want to avoid people with different points of view — or, worse yet, shut them up.
As the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education documents, efforts to limit campus speech come from across the political spectrum.
But the cure for disdainful talk surely isn’t less discussion. The best response to speech with which we don’t agree is speech that offers criticisms and alternative viewpoints, backed by clear statements of values, logic and evidence.
Real conversation doesn’t require burying differences of opinion but rather providing the light of scrutiny while respecting individuals who disagree.
Scrutiny sometimes means distinguishing values from facts and working through ethical claims to better understand different values and their consequences.
When it comes to factual claims, students should learn about what experts have concluded and how researchers assess evidence. Students should develop skills for separating truth from fiction.
Learning how to make good arguments, to examine arguments and to analyze assumptions underlying arguments are skills all students should learn, in and outside of classrooms, from professors and others.
As John Stuart Mill wrote in “On Liberty,” “he who knows only his own side of the case” may have good reasons. “But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…
“Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations,” Mill continued. “He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”
No doubt, hearing certain ideas can cause discomfort sometimes. But there is no impenetrable bubble of like-minded people out in the world. There shouldn’t be in academia either. And, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note, research shows that trying to ensure young people are protected from all challenges makes them less resilient.
Moreover, often it’s a lack of comfort that provides the impetus to think through ideas. Done right, students don’t just use those tools when interacting with others but also look inward at their own views.
Are there justifiable limits to campus speech? The University of Maine System says institutions “may prohibit speech that violates the law, defames specific individuals, genuinely threatens or harasses others, or violates privacy or confidentiality requirements or interests.” Those are legitimate restrictions.
But the UMS also rightly strongly defends open discourse. “Free speech requires tolerance for diversity of opinion and respect for an individual’s right to express his or her beliefs, however unpopular they may be, without social or legal prohibition or fear of sanction,” reads the UMS policy manual. “Tolerating and respecting another’s views, however, does not mean those views are immune from critical scrutiny. Indeed, it is the university’s responsibility to foster an environment where all are free to critically evaluate the ideas presented to them, and to accept critical evaluation of their own ideas.”
Alexis de Tocqueville called New England town meetings “a school for democracy.” College should be, too.