It’s Frustrating That The Campus Free Speech Conversation Remains So Stunted
A generally interesting Slate article misses the point in illustrative ways
A lot of people are trumpeting a new Slate article by Lucas Mann, an author and creative writing professor at University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth, headlined “I’m a Longtime Professor. The Real Campus ‘Free Speech Crisis’ Is Not What You Think.”
Mann argues early in his piece that there has been a lot of talk about campus free speech in major media outlets: endless coverage of major social justice blowups, of radical student activists and besieged professors. Since he himself is a professor, he explains, “Each time this happens, I wait for someone to ask me about it. And I always tell my interlocutors the same thing: I don’t recognize my school at all in the conversations about what conversation is apparently like at universities in America. I never have.”
What follows is a nice essay about what it’s like to be the sort of professor who is… well, common. Mann rightly points out that the elite institutions that generate the lion’s share of mainstream media coverage are just the tip of America’s academic iceberg:
Think of how many of those 5,300 schools you’ve actually heard of. Now think how many you’ve seen mentioned in conversations about what does, or should, happen in a college classroom. U.S. News and World Report’s top 25 colleges—where, inevitably, most of these stories are set—have around 250,000 undergraduates enrolled per year. There are roughly 16 million undergraduates around the country at any given time. Those other 5,275 schools with millions and millions of students are where the vast majority of college learning in America happens. Whatever side you take on various arguments about speech at elite universities, you’re participating in a conversation that willfully ignores this truth.
Surely Mann’s general point here is correct. If you’re, say, a major newspaper reporter on the higher education beat, and you don’t devote a significant amount of your time to understanding what is going on at community colleges, or even just lesser known four-year colleges where none of your colleagues have kids, I’d argue you’re not doing your job well. “Higher education” is indeed often treated as a synonym for “The 50 ‘best,’ hardest-to-get-into schools in the US,” and that’s a mistake, because those schools represent only the tiniest tip of a very large, very important iceberg.
But I think Mann and the many people celebrating his essay as an important blow in the never-ending internecine progressive war over “cancel culture” or whatever you want to call it are missing the point.
I Was Very Wrong About All Of This
In 2015 or so, I didn’t think the stuff happening on college campuses was that big a deal. I bet if you’d asked me what my overall attitude was, I would have said that there certainly seemed to be some excesses on some campuses, and they were regrettable, but it didn’t really point to any larger trend, because all these kids would become normal when they entered the real world. When I was at New York magazine, I also got suckered by a bogus stat about campus kids’ views on free speech becoming more illiberal, which I think made me more skeptical of such narratives. That’s not to say I never wrote about these issues — here’s a brief piece I wrote about an insane 2016 “investigation” of pro-Donald-Trump chalking at Emory University — but I think I understood the trend toward illiberal weirdness as restricted to college campuses.
One of the cool things about having a made-up title like “senior editor,” like I did at the time, is you can trick impressive people into meeting with you. In 2016 or thereabouts, I had lunch with Jon Haidt, who I had been a fan of for years (definitely read his latest essay), and I remember discussing the possibility of making a friendly bet about our disagreement on this issue. Haidt thought that when college kids entered major institutions, they’d bring their strange and radical beliefs with them, changing certain parts of the adult world. I thought the kids would be absorbed into normie culture and, when paychecks and professional reputations depended on it, quietly abandon beliefs about, say, words that make them uncomfortable being “violent.”
If memory serves, our bet-talk was quite brief and preliminary, and we didn’t get far enough to discuss terms or anything. Lucky me, because man, would I have lost that bet! Haidt was completely right. Not that there was some nationwide “woke” revolution or anything, but that when it comes to the sort of institutions that employ graduates of top-tier schools, I don’t see how anyone in their right mind can deny that a massive change has taken place in a very short period of time.