The University System of Georgia recently completed a study ostensibly to find out whether its faculty members are browbeating students by giving vent to their political biases in class. The main result of the study—heralded in Inside Higher Education, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and U.S. News and World Report’s education blog—is a strong declaration that Georgia faculty members are, on the whole, scrupulously unbiased. Along with this came a second finding: students in the Georgia system encounter a considerable degree of intolerance of their opinions from other students.
The news organizations did their job in reporting the facts, though perhaps not without a little glee. The story behind the story, of course, is that critics have charged that bias is widespread in the classroom. The Georgia study appears to put a spike through that claim.
Some of those critics, such as David Horowitz, have urged state legislatures to adopt measures aimed at encouraging more intellectual balance on campus. Stanley Fish has just published a book, Save the World on Your Time, in which he amplifies a theme he has been pressing for the last few years—that faculty members should keep their social activism out of the classroom.
But if the conclusions drawn from the University System of Georgia study are accurate, Horowitz, Fish, and others—including the National Association of Scholars—have grossly overstated the problem and misconstrued campus dynamics. So are the conclusions accurate?
We have doubts.
A Flawed Survey
Georgia reached those conclusions by analyzing the results of a “Survey on Student Speech and Discussion.” The survey, dated May 2008, was conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Georgia, and received responses from 1,220 Georgia college students. Its purpose was “to examine how much freedom of speech students feel that they have in their daily lives at our universities.”
The survey sought to measure several hard-to-measure factors: frequency of classroom discussion at USG campuses, student attitudes toward free speech, classroom environment, and students’ openness to having their ideas challenged.
But before we venture into the details, let’s consider the premise. If you want to find out whether professors are presenting biased views in the classroom, do you construct a survey on “how much freedom of speech students feel that they have in their daily lives?” No matter how good the survey and the expertise of the surveyors, the basic question is a diversion. It puts aside the issue of what professors actually do in their classrooms and gives us instead an inquiry into how students “feel” about their own degree of freedom.
The diversion is clever in its way. It suggests—plausibly at first glance—that students would be in the best position to know whether a professor is biased. Surely this is true in some circumstances. It’s true if the professor is grandiloquently holding forth on presidential politics in class that is supposed to be about Jane Eyre or multivariate calculus. And it’s true if the student happens to know his way around the subject and can notice where the professor is omitting important material or slanting the presentation.
The grandiloquently digressing professor may be a relative rarity. The professor who trims his subject to fit his biases may be less rare. There is in fact plenty of indirect evidence that this kind of bias is common in the humanities and the social sciences. But the Georgia study is necessarily silent on this matter. That’s because, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, the students don’t know what they don’t know. Generally for a student to detect this sort of bias, he has to have studied the subject beforehand from independent sources. Otherwise, the biased professor’s account sounds perfectly authoritative—and unbiased. This is especially so in programs of study such as Women’s Studies in which students are likely to share the biases of the professor.
This invisibility problem seems a pretty obvious flaw in Georgia’s procedure—but not obvious enough to trigger questions among the reporters for Inside Higher Education, or the Chronicle, or the blogger at U.S. News.
The Unlucky 13 Percent
So the Georgia study may be a red herring, at least on the central issue of classroom bias. But the study did produce some interesting data. How do students understand the political atmosphere on campus? The results suggest that the students are by and large in an emotional fog. They are sensitive to the kinds of disagreement that result in heated exchanges and consternation, but the quieter forms of both suppression of free thought and inappropriate advocacy typically pass unnoticed.
This is not to say that the blustery kinds of bias were altogether absent in the Georgia system. In the poll, 13% of students “agreed that professors in their classes had inappropriately presented their own political views in class.” Unfortunately, that 13 percent is not broken down by discipline or subject. It’s unlikely that it is distributed evenly across the curriculum, from MATH 1113 “Pre-Calculus” to the HIST 2050H “Multicultural America.” Rather, we suspect Georgia has helped to hide the problem by diluting it. We do know that over half of the students surveyed are majoring in science or business. If we were able to factor out the hundreds of scientific and technical courses in which the occasion for bias is very limited, what would the percentage be? Double? Triple?
Unlike the students, we do know what we don’t know. We know that Georgia compiled the data in such a way as to make it impossible to see which subjects were host to the greatest number of student complaints about bias.
The study also reported that approximately 21 percent of students “reported that students were not respectful of the political opinions of all students.” This is a rather nebulous discovery. Should students be “respectful of political opinions of all students?” A great deal seems to hang on that word “respectful.” We would hope that students would respect the rights of other students to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, for example, but would we want students to respect the actual political opinions of all other students? It isn’t hard to find on most campuses a few students who, having tasted the intoxicating liquor of nihilism, espouse a wanton might-makes-right philosophy that lends itself equally well to political opinions aligned with fascism or revolutionary Marxism. The rights of students to express views such as these (before they get tired of them) should indeed be respected. But it is sheer foolishness to respect the views themselves.
Thus when we read about the 21 percent of students who found other students insufficiently respectful, we have to wonder what’s really going on. Have nearly a quarter of the Georgia students become so blasé about politics that they simply don’t care what other people espouse? Are they so conflict-averse that any expression of disdain for someone else’s views is taken as a breach of community standards? One account of what this might mean was provided by one of the surveyed students who wrote:
I am completely for students who disagree with other people's opinions and believe that it is as much their right to vocalize their disagreement of a person's opinion as it is to have an opinion in the first place. However, some students feel the need to express their disagreement in a rude or condescending manner. I'm all for people having beliefs, but I absolutely despise rudeness. By all means disagree, but do it with some respect.
Here is something to chew over: rudeness as the ultimate transgression. I will defend to the death your right to espouse totalitarianism provided you do so nicely.
The Official Interpretation
Unfortunately, the study leaves us in the dark on many matters. But the darkness does not avail against Susan Herbst, executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer of the university system. She knows what the numbers mean. Herbst told Inside Higher Ed, “We don’t have a systemic problem” from indoctrination in higher education. Herbst hoped that the study would quell claims from legislators that professors use the classroom as a political platform. Naturally.
The study has already prompted a certain degree of confusion. Inside Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the U.S. News and World Report blog all highlighted the findings as illuminating the degree of “tolerance” on campus. Inside Higher Ed headlined its article “Tolerant Faculty, Intolerant students” and persistently characterized the findings in terms of tolerance and intolerance. The Chronicle took a lighter touch but also wrote of students who are “intolerant of different viewpoints.” And U.S. News followed suit. But the Georgia study uses the word only once at the very end:
That completes the survey. Thank you for your participation. The responses you have provided will be used to assess the environment in which students learn in University System of Georgia institutions to insure that differing viewpoints are accepted and tolerated in the learning environment.
None of the questions focused on tolerance, and Susan Herbst didn’t use it either in her quoted statements.
What the Students Say
The word does, however crop up with some frequency in the free-form answers that students gave. Here for example is a student complaining how hard it is to be “tolerant” in a sea of liberal intolerance:
I feel like the students who have the most influence are liberal. I have witnessed countless times when a student states their support of a conservative ideal only to be demonized by the majority of the class and/or professor. It makes trying to be tolerant of other political beliefs difficult when you are constantly "called-out" for your personal stances, even when you support them sufficiently.
Still it seems odd that the press would instantly recast a survey on the question, “How much freedom of speech students feel that they have in their daily lives?” as a survey on tolerance. The two topics are obviously related, but not identical. I can enjoy freedom of speech amidst considerable intolerance and mere toleration doesn’t make me free. Freedom of speech and toleration, however, elide into one another if you think of freedom as something granted by others. If my sense of free speech is limited by what I calculate will not irritate you, I have imposed a censorious standard on myself far more restrictive than any university speech code.
That’s probably to make too fine a point of it. Students often use language loosely, and it is best to try to figure out what they actually mean. Many students who use the word “tolerance” seem to mean something more like “open-mindedness.” They are frustrated over a pervasive indifference to dissenting views, which they find stifling. This lament about “toleration” cuts across ideological lines.
I have little confidence that even if the University System of Georgia wants to change Georgia State to create a tolerance of differing views, it is possible
B. If an idea or opinion does not fit into a politically correct view of the world it will not be tolerated.
C. I've encountered several situations where I, or someone else in the class had an opposing view to the class majority (at least the vocal ones), and were basically ridiculed as if our opinion didn't matter. The unfortunate part about it was the teacher's tolerance message that should have been brought up, or lack thereof.
D. Most people here are fairly conservative, reflecting the general view of the surrounding community. I have found conservative people to be less tolerant of people who have different opinions than they do.
E. Students are not respectful of others political opinions at my university because they are not tolerant of anyone else’s opinions.
This is the Bible belt. There is little tolerance for persons who are WICCA, Jewish, Islamic, or any other non-Christian faith.
G. Dr. [[REDACTED]], continuously showed his strong opinions regarding the mentality of college students. No matter what the case, he notoriously made it clear that no opinion of ANY student was tolerated at any time.
H. The opinions of the students were not tolerated nor welcome in in-class discussions. The professor, Dr. [[REDACTED]], made it clear everyday that his opinion was the only one that counted. In-class discussions were extremely rare and limited.
I. Shouldn't most of campus be a free speech zone? It's sad that we have to actually designate one. This speaks to the lack of tolerance even in higher education.
There are many more such comments, which gives them a cumulative weight. It becomes apparent that the students really do have an odd notion of “tolerance” and “intolerance.”
John Locke famously argued for society to tolerate a wide range of religious views on the grounds that all men are “liable to error.” He also thought toleration, along with reason, is basic to human nature, and freedom of opinion should be tolerated in a just society so long as the expressions of opinion do no harm to another’s “Life, Health, Liberty, or Possession.” More recently John Rawls argued that a just society needn’t tolerate the intolerant. Some of the Georgia students, however, seem to stake a new frontier for toleration. In their view, any strong expression of disagreement or disapproval is an act of intolerance. Some even seem to think that anything short of affirming what the other guy says is intolerance. These are foolish annexations to the original idea of tolerance, which doesn’t ask us to fall silent, much less applaud views that we think mistaken. Tolerance asks only that, if we disagree, we do so without bludgeons, swords, oppressive laws, or confiscation. Toleration doesn’t guarantee anyone freedom from the aggravation of learning that others think you an ass and your opinions the equivalent of overripe Liederkranz.
It is not hard to see how Executive Vice Chancellor Herbst might get concerned at reading through the 185-page document.
Tolerance and Diversity
Herbst’s reaction, however, was generally relaxed. She told The Chronicle, “I didn't see anything worrisome or outside the norm of what would be on a typical campus.” She thought it would be good if Georgia students “realize that universities are a place to go to feel uncomfortable intellectually.” And she told Inside Higher Education that, “The big finding is that we need to do a better job in how we talk to students about how they talk to each other. Students don’t seem to have the tools to argue passionately and not hurt each other’s feelings. This is an opportunity for us. This is something we can work on.”
I suppose you choose what to worry about. There are a substantial number of Georgia students who find their colleges and universities lacking an essential component, even if they have some difficulty saying what it is. Herbst thinks the missing component is how to “argue passionately and not hurt each other’s feelings.” I think there is a more compelling answer that has to do with institutional values that are already well-realized.
Here for example is what one of the most articulate students in the whole survey had to say:
On-campus minority organizations, which might be rightfully angered by hateful speech, unfortunately often turn their efforts to abridgment of guaranteed freedoms. It is shameful that the University is bullied by such organizations on a regular basis. Whenever there are several diverse groups of people in a certain place, respect generally decreases. While there are many people that are respectful of others opinions and views, there are also many that criticize due to somebody having a different opinion than their own. At my institution, there are people from many different cultures, races and economic standings. This is why I believe that students are not respectful of other's political opinions. It is a very touchy subject for many, and a conversation between people of different political beliefs would more than likely turn in to a very heated and disrespectful debate.
There is a word for this, and it goes along with and explains why so many students instantly reverted to the language of “toleration.” What this anonymous student is complaining about is the unintended effect of regimented diversity. Students in the Georgia system are divided into identity groups, each of which is urged to emphasize its historic grievances. “Toleration” is the campus code word for telling people to get along once you have convinced them their primary identities are inalterably rooted in racial, ethnic, or other historical categories.
If the grievance groups are primary, then campus intellectual community is inevitably a secondary matter. Hence the emphasis on codes of politeness and non-confrontation. Nobody really expects to converse across the iron grid of differences. The notion that students have an overriding common interest in the pursuit of truth is simply absent from this context.
Apart from quelling the pesky legislators, Herbst sees the study as pointing to the need to teach students “how to argue passionately without hurting each other’s feelings.” Few will venture into that terrain as long as group identity matters more than intellectual freedom.
It is hard to know exactly where Herbst expects to go with this, but her desire to foster greater civility among students has an ominous ring. Will the colleges and universities that make up the Georgia system soon have a mandatory program of “tolerance education?” That would amount to punishing the students for the errors of the administrators and faculty members who have created the current system that leaves students shunning vigorous expression of their views for fear of being accused of insensitivity, harassment, or something worse.
On the key question of whether Georgia’s “Survey on Student Speech and Discussion” contributes to the debate over classroom bias, the answer is, unfortunately, “very little.” The survey was framed in a manner that emphasized student feelings, not actual classroom practices. Nonetheless, a significant number of students—13 percent of the respondents—did report classroom bias. And the percent of complaints about courses in the humanities and the social sciences may well be a multiple of that figure. Georgia hid the most important part of the pattern by lumping those figures in with science and technical courses.
The study did, however, bring to light a larger pattern of complaints—a pattern that the University System along with the media have proceeded to misinterpret as a complaint that Georgia students just don’t know how to express their disagreements in a sufficiently civil manner. We think the evidence points to something else: Georgia students perfectly well understand that the University System of Georgia prizes group identity over individual expression. The result is a system that treats any serious departure from the tacit niceties of political correctness as a form of unbearable rudeness. The result is an atmosphere of frosty rectitude punctuated with outbreaks of deliberate provocation.
We agree that the survey reveals something important about the University System. But what it needs, contrary to Executive Vice Chancellor Herbst, is not more civility among students. Rather, it needs to free itself from its stultifying emphasis on group identity.