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For unto you a text is given

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I’m happy to present Erik with a genuine Easter miracle this morning: this great essay on the real ‘free speech” crisis in America’s college classrooms. Written by Lucas Mann, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, it’s so good that I hate to excerpt it — please read it! — but I’ll offer a couple of excerpts.

Mann’s essay is built around the crucial but almost always ignored fact that coverage of higher education in America in the elite media, especially in regard to whatever we’re calling “political correctness” this week, is wildly distorted by that coverage’s absurd narrowness:

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.

And what’s happening in the 98% of college classrooms that to lesser and mostly greater degrees bear little resemblance to those at Yale and Oberlin and Virginia?

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. At the beginning of each semester, there is reticence to get into debates in class, but it isn’t coming from some sense of political fear and self-silencing. It’s an act of negotiation, the students coaxing themselves toward a feeling of agency, security, investment, and hopefully community. In my experience, students work really hard to make others feel welcome because they’re going through the same process. They are, by and large, far gentler with one another’s ideas than their own.

For a lot of students, studying the humanities means giving themselves over to their passion for reading, writing, and discussion, while constantly being asked by themselves and others to defend these acts as worthwhile. I would (often do) argue that they are, but either way this tension permeates every discussion—sometimes explicitly, sometimes not.

I had one student I taught in three separate courses who made it very explicit. In each class, he was present, curious, a really good writer; I think he liked what we were discussing and took it all seriously, but there were at least a few days each semester that began combatively, with him reminding me about the tens of thousands of dollars of debt he carried, pushing me about what the point of all this was. Couldn’t he just get an associate degree for this stuff? Why did he have to keep facing down four years of expensive uncertainty? Other students invariably joined in. This never stunted the conversation about whatever text I’d assigned, but it did put a charge on it, an entry point that many of them shared that was part of our discourse, even if that hadn’t been my goal. I had to bring a level of risk and personal investment to the table that it would’ve been much easier to shelve in the name of authority. I don’t know that I ever had a good enough answer for this student. I did, however, watch him grow as a thinker and a writer, almost in spite of himself. I wish he’d been able to enjoy our conversations more, even as he gamely participated. I wish there was a concrete way to prove to him, and myself, that this was all worth it.

Mann doesn’t pretend he has wholly satisfactory answers for these kinds of questions because of course he doesn’t. Over the past 75 years the sociology of undergraduate education in America has shifted radically, from an elite sorting mechanism, to a somewhat democratizing set of institutions. Every single one of the endless “conservative [almost invariably white] students are being censored” stories is written as if college was still what it was in 1940, when 5% of the population over age 25 had a four-year college degree. (That figure is currently about 32%.)

This does not exactly strike me as a coincidence, because the — often no doubt unconscious — ideological frame from which those stories spring is always deeply reactionary. Every single one is an exercise in What’s Wrong With [Elite] Kids Today, which of course is a genre that’s been mined continuously in “our” own civilization since at least the days of Plato.

Anyway, if I could force all the people cranking out those stories to read just one thing published about college education in America in the last five years, it would be Mann’s essay.

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