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Are College Students Blinkered Authoritarians?

A Personal Perspective: The problem is teachers who indoctrinate, not teach.

Key points

  • Numerous surveys find college students endorsing authoritarian views on free speech.
  • Results from such surveys may overestimate the prevalence due to sampling limitations.
  • It's likely that most students only weakly hold such views.

Recent years have seen significant handwringing over free speech issues and political balance on college campuses. And this isn’t unwarranted. Enough free-speech meltdowns with students shouting down speakers, trying to get professors fired, bullying peers, or even assaulting people on the wrong political side have revealed a significant rot in the ethics and culture of modern universities. This has led many commentators to worry that the next generation of youth is destined to form a wave of neo-Communist political commissars.

Such concerns are often supported by survey studies suggesting a significant proportion of youth are willing to suppress free speech in pursuit of ostensibly progressive goals. For example, yearly reports by the law firm McLaughlin and Associates, sponsored by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale found that in 2023, 46 percent believe offensive opinions should be reported, 50 percent believe professors should prevent students from debating some issues, 39 percent believe political opinions can harm their mental health and 46 percent believe (falsely) that the First Amendment prohibits hate speech. Further, 46 percent support shouting down unliked speakers, and 45 percent believe physical violence is warranted to suppress hate speech. A further 63 percent believe professors should be forced to sign statements supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), despite such programs not working, and 46 percent think the US is a white supremacist country.

These numbers, on the surface, are worrying. To be clear, I think there are significant reasons to believe that the educational system from K through university has so thoroughly failed the recent generation of youth, that we are, indeed, facing a deeply misinformed group of young adults. But I don’t think it’s their fault and I don’t think it’s irreversible.

There are some tells in the data. For instance, in the 2022 survey by the same group, a full 49 percent of respondents claimed to be willing to give up an opportunity or job for someone less privileged. That’s nonsense. Even during the reckoning of 2020, I can’t think of a single example of, say, a privileged professor giving up a tenured job to open it up for less privileged people. It’s just not something people do. I suspect some of these responses are, to use the technical term: Lying. Or to be clearer, people are saying what they think they’re supposed to conform or get ahead, just as rank-and-file communists in Russia nodded along with stuff they knew was nonsense to keep their jobs.

Though there are undoubtedly some student true believers, I suspect most students are merely parroting the stuff they hear in K12 through university, keeping their heads down in hopes of surviving in the system. I think if the educational system were able to return to a more balanced, fact-based, less ideological, and activist approach, these students would drop ahistorical, non-empirical beliefs for good information.

The other issue with these surveys is their sampling. Although designed to demographically represent the US population of college-aged youth, they have two limitations. First, participants were recruited online. I’d argue people who spend more time online tend to be more politically polarized than those who do not. Second, selection bias is always a problem with surveys. People willing to suppress speech in the name of diversity may be more excited about expressing those views than those with more moderate opinions. It’s a common flaw of survey research and why many prevalence statistics are exaggerated when based on self-report.

These numbers also don’t fit my own experience. If half of the students wanted to fire professors at the slightest challenge to progressive orthodoxy, I should have been fired long ago. Instead, my interactions with my students at Stetson University have always been thoughtful and constructive. Granted Stetson has a University of Chicago style free speech statement, and students may also self-select into my class because they share my commitment to open and respectful dialogue. But even guest lectures at other universities have not resulted in calls for my head.

It's not my intent to be pollyannaish. Just this week, in response to the massacre of Jews in Israel by the terror group Hamas, numerous student groups at Harvard released a statement solely blaming the Israeli Jews for their own murders. Episodes such as this reveal that we have deeply failed some of our students, who’ve learned deeply regressive and Manichaean attitudes.

But I think the problem is one of opportunity cost. A minority of K12 teachers and professors are swamping kids with political orthodoxy, and most of the rest are afraid to push back. But we need to. It’s our job to educate kids on the complexities of the world, and important civics such as free speech and due process. Instead, our US educational system too often tries to turn them into revolutionaries. It’s not a mystery why some students hold such bizarre views. If we reform our educational system, we can fix this.

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