Rather than enraging online activists, students should first defend their beliefs in person.Students cannot let the answer to classroom bias be less speech. Students deserve more than just one perspective. They also deserve more than a sanitized version of a topic because the professor was backed into a corner. Click To Tweet
MacIver Perspective | September 17, 2018
By Abby Streu
During enrollment for the Fall 2018 semester at UW-Madison, student Ali Khan signed up for a political science class about terrorism to see whether or not it would be biased. It would appear that Khan showed up for the first day of class looking for controversy. After one class, Khan created an angry Facebook post, detailing his perceived bias of the course.
Khan criticized the professor for failing to provide context to the course outline in the syllabus. He claims that the class will not cover state-sponsored terrorism. He also criticizes the professor for failing to dive into the complexities of “Jihad.”
The post resulted in both criticism of Khan and his professor, Andrew Kydd. The post accumulated over a hundred comments, with most individuals agreeing with Khan’s analysis. UW-Madison’s two student newspapers covered his criticism as well. Off the direct route from the post, however, other students voiced concerns.
Students wary of Khan’s opinions believe he jumped to conclusions. One of his fellow peers in the class told me, “preemptive criticism is wrong.” He explained that Khan is not bothered by the actual course because it has yet to dive into its material, but rather he is bothered by “what he anticipates to happen.”
Those students also take issue with his immediate search for controversy on the internet, punctuated with the professor’s name and email. The comment section on Khan’s original post is littered with enraged activists, vowing to fire their concerns at Professor Kydd.
While there is a Constitutional understanding of the First Amendment—that the government should not be able to compel speech—there is also a more abstract truth of “free speech.” On college campuses, students should be advocating for more speech rather than the suppression of it.
Almost every student at a university with opinions has encountered a professor who they believed presented an issue or topic in their course with only one perspective. I have, and I once did what Khan did: prompt public awareness of the bias. A few wise individuals helped me see that I was wrong.
Instead of first voicing his outrage on social media, Khan should have spoken to Professor Kydd about his concerns, which he reportedly did in the end. Should Professor Kydd have ignored those comments, Khan could have taken action but in a different direction. While I agree that there are many situations in which bold immediate activism is needed, this may have been a time when a less-publicized version of events would have been more effective.
This is not an endorsement of complacency. Despite it being a daunting task, students should rise to the occasion when they encounter classroom bias. Polarized teaching presents an opportunity for students to experience a different viewpoint. While it might require more work, students should look for additional perspective by learning their side’s arguments as well as their opponents’. Stimulating discussion in class and crafting papers to present additional viewpoints help the dissenting student, as well as their peers who did not realize a bias was occurring.
Students cannot let the answer to classroom bias be less speech. Students deserve more than just one perspective. They also deserve more than a sanitized version of a topic because the professor was backed into a corner.
Solving the problem of community-censored speech is not an easy task. It is about readjusting a campus dynamic rather than busting bureaucrats for violating rights. In addition, students across the political spectrum engage in this behavior, making it more difficult to address. Individuals accept their perspective as a moral truth and find any difference in perspective as an attack on their character or perspective.
For example, left-leaning students may show up to a Ben Shapiro lecture on a Wisconsin campus and block the speaker from giving his remarks. While this is wrong—blocking speech is always wrong—those students feel justified, as they fear their existence is at risk.
A few conservative students may act rashly and report professors to a bias watch-list when they feel their opinions are neglected in class. This is wrong—blocking speech is always wrong—but those students feel justified, as they fear their ideology is not being represented enough in academia.
A Muslim student may find a class to be biased against their religion and create an angry Facebook post, prompting others to email and heckle that professor, which has the potential to create a chilling effect. This is wrong—blocking speech is always wrong.
Getting angry about someone else’s speech and convincing others to get angry is not encouraging discussion. When someone presents their ideas as correct while simultaneously smothering the speech of others, their peers correlate those ideas with the suppression of speech. This takes away from arguments, making them either look Orwellian or weak, in that the ideas cannot survive without cutting off dissent.
Universities are supposed to be institutions that foster the flow of ideas. Students attend universities in order to learn something they may not have considered or known before. We must reclaim this pursuit of knowledge. If a student shows up to class thinking they already know the answers, what are they spending their money on? Students need to take control of their education and not passively show up to class or complain on the internet when a class does not feed into their narrative.
In the battle of ideas, justice will come forth with more speech and ideas. If a theory is grounded in truth, more people will speak to it, drowning out the theories of lesser-worth. No one has to stifle bad ideas—they will die as more individuals become enlightened. As late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”Universities are supposed to be institutions that foster the flow of ideas. Students attend universities in order to learn something they may not have considered or known before. We must reclaim this pursuit of knowledge. Click To Tweet
Abby Streu is a MacIver Institute intern and the chair of the UW-Madison chapter of Young Americans for Freedom.