The myths and realities of free speech on campus

May 1, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: freedom of speech, journalism.

A professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth has taken on the notion, depicted in article after article in major media outlets, that there is a “free speech” crisis and ensuing turmoil roiling American college campuses.

In a recent article on Slate.com, Lucas Mann, a professor of English and journalism, points out that most of the articles about this “issue” center on local controversies within the confines of so-called “elite” universities.

What is really happening with the 16 million college students at the more than 5,000 institutions of higher education throughout the nation is quite different.

What I find most foreign in accounts of “free speech” on campuses is the depiction of militancy among students, a monolith of kids who, in these representations, apparently show up at age 18 secure in their views and voice and the power of that voice in an academic setting. Instead, what I observe to be the biggest hurdle for my students is the challenge of allowing themselves to speak, which means feeling at home, engaged, and empowered enough to validate their own perspective as worthy of the discussion. Source:Campus free speech crisis: Its myths and its realities.

Mann outlines some of the challenges that most college professors face.

The trick isn’t convincing students to drop their dogmas. It’s convincing them that the stuff we’re talking about could matter in lives already complicated by many other things—that they could create a space of excitement or pleasure, one worth the commitment. I think their sense of the purpose of college is constantly shifting, and often under stress. My conceptions of my own teaching, my values and goals, are always under scrutiny and changing as well. Each class is an act of enormous shared challenge and, ultimately, faith.

Higher education in this country is not grinding to a halt under the weight of free speech controversies. It is still an active and vital part of the nation’s intellectual infrastructure. Institutions and faculty remain committed to meeting student needs and serving the best interests of the country.

Despite its current challenges, America’s system of higher education is still the envy of the world. It should be cherished and supported.

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