ABRAMS: New England liberal arts colleges are dangerous to American civility

BY SAMUEL J. ABRAMS

With their leafy campuses, visually diverse student bodies, well-stocked libraries, and attentive professors, small liberal arts colleges across New England, the Mid Atlantic, and Midwest are often considered archetypes of the ideal college experience.

While this idyllic vision of a liberal arts education may be appeal to many, families and potential students should take note: Students at these liberal arts colleges are the most repressive when it comes to issues of free speech. New data makes it unquestionably clear that geography matters and students enrolled in liberal arts schools on the East Coast and along the northern borders are leading the way in attempts to limit speech.

Data from a just-released survey from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) captures the voices of over 37,000 students at 159 colleges and provides unique empirical insight into issues of speech and viewpoint diversity on campus today. The results are quite disturbing.

When asked about the acceptability of shouting down a speaker or trying to prevent a guest from sharing potentially divisive, thought-provoking, or even upsetting views on campus, the national picture is underwhelming. Although campuses are the supposed to be spaces of ideas and debate, students feel otherwise: One third (33 percent) of students nationwide state that shouting down speakers or preventing them from speaking is either always or sometimes acceptable, and another third (33 percent) say that it is rarely, but nonetheless, acceptable.

Digging a bit deeper, the data show that some types of schools are leading the illiberal charge against free speech. Almost half (47 percent) of students who attend New England liberal arts colleges — schools like Smith College and Colby College — believe it is either always or sometimes acceptable to shout down a speaker to prevent them from sharing their views on campus. Schools in the West North Central region, which includes colleges such as Grinnell College and Macalester College, express similar willingness to shout down a speaker (48 percent). A similar number (46 percent) of students at Mid Atlantic colleges, including Haverford College and Bard College, feel the same way.

Outside New England, the Mid Atlantic, and the Midwest, liberal arts colleges appear to be in better shape. Roughly four in 10 students enrolled at liberal arts colleges in the Mountain (42 percent) and Pacific (35 percent) regions of the United States say shouting down speakers is always or sometimes acceptable. So, despite the fact that shouting down a speaker is antithetical to collegiate life, there are clearly some parts of the country where such practices are welcome.

Turning to the increasing trend of protests and actions designed to limit students from hearing the ideas of others, 13 percent of students nationally respond that it is either always or sometimes acceptable to block other students from attending a campus speech. Almost twice the number of students in New England liberal arts colleges (21 percent) believe such actions are acceptable.

Regrettably, except for those in the Pacific and Mountain regions, most liberal arts students are fairly open to blocking other students from attending a campus speaking event. Over a fifth of students enrolled in liberal arts colleges in the Mid Atlantic (21 percent) and West North Central (25 percent) regions say it is always or sometimes acceptable to block students from attending a speaking event. Less than two in 10 liberal arts students in the Mountain (15 percent) and Pacific (14 percent) regions say the same.

Recent years have seen an uptick in real violence emerge over schools hosting particular speakers, and the data show that almost a quarter (23 percent) of students nationwide can find cases where speech justifies violence. New England and Mid Atlantic schools are a bit higher with closer to 30 percent justifying the use of violence while just 19 percent of students in the Mountain region feel the same way. So, there are geographic issues with liberal arts schools that are real and potent with respect to speech and expression.

In all, the fact that liberal arts colleges are leading the charge in inhibiting speech is even more problematic, for so many of these liberal arts colleges wrap themselves in ideals of inclusivity. Schools like Bard College claim to “embrace plurality, respect divergent viewpoints, and [commit] to understanding the rich spectrum of experiences that comprise our community,” but then allow students to silence ideas and limit their peers’ exposure to perspectives some may find offensive.

Higher education is supposed to make students uncomfortable by challenging norms and beliefs. Liberal arts collegiate environments are historically the most sacred and safe spaces for discussion and disagreement around ideas and differences. Too many liberal arts schools have clearly failed to teach their students about the critical import of viewpoint diversity. Future students and their families should think twice about certain schools if they truly want to get a well-rounded education.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute

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