Most U.S. College Students Afraid to Disagree with Professors

New survey finds faculty often express beliefs unrelated to course work.

 

Most U.S. College Students Afraid to Disagree with Professors
PHOTO: BEBETO MATTHEWS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Many U.S. college professors now regularly share their own social and political beliefs in class, and their students feel increasingly afraid to disagree. That’s according to a new national survey of undergraduates due out next week.

When students were asked if they’ve had “any professors or course instructors that have used class time to express their own social or political beliefs that are completely unrelated to the subject of the course,” 52% of respondents said that this occurs “often,” while 47% responded, “not often.”

A majority—53%—also reported that they often “felt intimidated” in sharing their ideas, opinions or beliefs in class because they were different from those of the professors. A slightly larger majority feared expressing themselves because of differences with classmates. On this question 54% said they often felt intimidated in expressing themselves when their views conflicted with those of their peers, compared to 44% who said they didn’t often feel this way.

The national online survey of 800 full-time undergraduates was conducted from October 8th to 18th and includes students at both public and private four-year universities in the U.S. Polling was done by McLaughlin & Associates on behalf of Yale’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, which counts your humble correspondent among its directors.

American academicians unfortunately appear to be just as political and overbearing as one would expect. This column isn’t old enough to remember when university faculty were thought to be conscientious adults in loco parentis. But perhaps the actual parents who write checks can someday find some way to encourage more responsible behavior.

As for the students, there’s at least a mixed message in the latest survey results. On the downside, the fact that so many students are afraid of disagreeing with their peers does not suggest a healthy intellectual atmosphere even outside the classroom. There’s more disappointing news in the answers to other survey questions. For example, 59% of respondents agreed with this statement:

My college or university should forbid people from speaking on campus who have a history of engaging in hate speech. 

This column does not favor hatred, nor the subjective definition of “hate speech” by college administrators seeking to regulate it. In perhaps the most disturbing finding in the poll results, 33% of U.S. college students participating in the survey agreed with this statement:

If someone is using hate speech or making racially charged comments, physical violence can be justified to prevent this person from espousing their hateful views.

An optimist desperately searching for a silver lining would perhaps note that 60% of respondents did not agree that physical violence is justified to silence people speaking what someone has defined as “hate speech” or “racially charged” comments. But the fact that a third of college students at least theoretically endorse violence as a response to offensive speech underlines the threat to free expression on American campuses.

Perhaps more encouraging are the responses to this question:

Generally speaking, do you think the First Amendment, which deals with freedom of speech, is an outdated amendment that can no longer be applied in today’s society and should be changed or an important amendment that still needs to be followed and respected in today’s society?

A full 79% of respondents opted for respecting the First Amendment, while 17% backed a rewrite.

On a more specific question, free speech isn’t winning by the same landslide. When asked if they would favor or oppose their schools having speech codes to regulate speech for students and faculty, 54% of U.S. college kids opposed such codes while 38% were in favor.

The free exchange of ideas is in danger on American campuses. And given the unprofessional behavior of American faculty suggested by this survey, education reformers should perhaps focus on encouraging free-speech advocates within the student body while adopting a campus slogan from an earlier era: Don’t trust anyone over 30.

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