When the voice of conscience is a monotone
Recent US research, and NZ experience, suggests universities need to do more to encourage free speech and critical thinking.
Universities have a special role—or at least, they’re supposed to. The Education and Training Act tells us that universities “accept a role as critic and conscience of society.” Their “principal aim” is “to develop intellectual independence” and they are to be “characterised by a wide diversity of teaching and research.” These are noble ideals, designed to help in the search for truth, the wellbeing of society, the development of active, inquiring minds. But what happens when the voice of this conscience becomes a monotone?
The recent Campus Expression Survey in the US reveals that, far from promoting the fearless exchange of views, university students in the land of the free are self-censoring at alarming rates. In fact, the survey authors report that, “In 2020, 62% of sampled college students agreed the climate on their campus prevents students from saying things they believe, up from 55% in 2019.” Students who were reluctant to discuss controversial issues said they feared being told their views were offensive or wrong, getting a lower grade as a result of expressing themselves, and being criticised on social media.
A critic might object that these findings could be fuelled by the social isolation wrought by the pandemic. With two-thirds of the students surveyed doing most of their learning online, it’s possible that this lack of in-person interaction made it harder to express themselves. But even if this were true, the 2019 picture doesn’t look rosy either. The survey’s suggestion of a stifling atmosphere is also consistent with other observations of US university campuses. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff note that in many academic disciplines and at many universities, the left-right ratio among academic staff is so skewed to the left that there is serious risk of institutional confirmation bias. For example, in Haidt’s field of psychology, the ratio is seventeen to one, well above the limit of around three to one that’s necessary to keep bias at bay.
But what does this American research have to do with the climate on New Zealand campuses? I’m not aware of any similar research conducted here, but anecdotal evidence suggests our universities, and our public discourse more broadly, may suffer from the same malaise, even if it is a less virulent strain. I’m thinking of incidents like the de-platforming of figures as disparate as Don Brash and Peter Singer, the de-stocking Jordan Peterson’s book by Whitcoulls, and incidents prompting the Government to raise freedom of speech concerns with Chinese officials after fallout from campus events commemorating the Tiananmen Square anniversary and supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
This matters because the free exchange of views even—in fact, especially—on controversial issues is essential for personal development and for a healthy society, for at least three reasons. First, Haidt and Lukianoff point out that while some systems are fragile and others are resilient, yet others are “anti-fragile”—that is, “they require stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt, and grow.” This, they say, is the case with intellectual development and the search for meaning and truth, which depends on each of us experiencing the challenge of differing viewpoints. Secondly, the journalist Matthew Syed argues that big technological and social advances, like the invention of the printing press or the development of behavioural economics, require the fusion of previously unconnected ideas, a process he terms “recombinant innovation.” These advances require intellectual diversity and a bringing into the fold of those who have an “outsider mindset.” Thirdly, as the researcher Brené Brown tells us, “people are hard to hate close up.” That is, it’s easy to dismiss and disparage others who think differently to us when they’re at a distance, but it’s a lot harder to do that when they’re right in front of us, say in a university lecture theatre or seminar room.
Are we at risk of losing these benefits in New Zealand universities? Without data it’s hard to say, so one way to assess the status quo would be for someone to administer the Campus Expression Survey here—the manual is freely available. Universities can provide a unique opportunity to encounter different ideas and different thinkers, to understand the world from a wide range of perspectives in an environment where standards of civility and enquiry are more likely than elsewhere, and where in-person encounter with those holding differing views can be the norm. I have three university degrees, but the most important thing I learned in my six years of study was not subject-specific, but how to think critically. It would be a tragedy if this opportunity was denied to today’s students.