(p. A19) In the classroom, backlash for unpopular opinions is so commonplace that many students have stopped voicing them, sometimes fearing lower grades if they don’t censor themselves. According to a 2021 survey administered by College Pulse of over 37,000 students at 159 colleges, 80 percent of students self-censor at least some of the time. Forty-eight percent of undergraduate students described themselves as “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” with expressing their views on a controversial topic in the classroom. At U.Va., 57 percent of those surveyed feel that way.
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The consequences for saying something outside the norm can be steep. I met Stephen Wiecek at our debate club. He’s an outgoing, formidable first-year debater who often stays after meetings to help clean up. He’s also conservative. At U.Va., where only 9 percent of students surveyed described themselves as a “strong Republican” or “weak Republican,” that puts him in the minority.
He told me that he has often “straight-up lied” about his beliefs to avoid conflict. Sometimes it’s at a party, sometimes it’s at an a cappella rehearsal, and sometimes it’s in the classroom. When politics comes up, “I just kind of go into survival mode,” he said. “I tense up a lot more, because I’ve got to think very carefully about how I word things. It’s very anxiety inducing.”
This anxiety affects not just conservatives. I spoke with Abby Sacks, a progressive fourth-year student. She said she experienced a “pile-on” during a class discussion about sexism in media. She disagreed with her professor, who she said called “Captain Marvel” a feminist film. Ms. Sacks commented that she felt the film emphasized the title character’s physical strength instead of her internal conflict and emotions. She said this seemed to frustrate her professor.
Her classmates noticed. “It was just a succession of people, one after each other, each vehemently disagreeing with me,” she told me.
Ms. Sacks felt overwhelmed. “Everyone adding on to each other kind of energized the room, like everyone wanted to be part of the group with the correct opinion,” she said. The experience, she said, “made me not want to go to class again.” While Ms. Sacks did continue to attend the class, she participated less frequently. She told me that she felt as if she had become invisible.
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We cannot experience the full benefits of a university education without having our ideas challenged, yet challenged in ways that allow us to grow. As Ms. Sacks told me, “We need to have conversations about these issues without punishing each other for our opinions.”
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(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 7, 2022, and has the title “I Came to College Eager to Debate. I Found Self-Censorship Instead.”)