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Resisting cancel culture: Teaching college students how to think

Dr. Carlos Campo is president of Ashland University in Ohio
Dr. Carlos Campo is president of Ashland University in Ohio | Courtesy of Ashland University

A few years ago, we were surprised to read Pew research statistics indicating that, “for the first time in U.S. history,” Americans felt like higher education was “headed in the wrong direction.”  As we dug into the reasons why, tuition costs topped the list, but other factors got our attention. In particular, we were intrigued and troubled by the complaint that “professors bring their social and political views into the classroom,” and that “colleges and universities are too concerned with protecting students from potentially offensive views.”

The report went on to state that, “When asked about the trade-off between allowing free speech, however distasteful, on college campuses versus protecting students from views they may find offensive, the public comes down clearly on the side of free speech.” Nearly 90% indicated that “it’s more important to allow people to speak their minds freely, even if some students find their views upsetting or offensive, than it is to ensure that students aren’t exposed to views they find upsetting or offensive, even if that limits what people are allowed to say.”

After reading the study, we felt as though the opinions expressed therein certainly did not reflect the ethos here at Ashland University, but we weren’t exactly sure how to quantify how we differed from these perceptions. We decided to take some specific actions to try to counter those views. For one, we adopted our version of the “Chicago Principles” of free speech, so named because the University of Chicago founded them in 2014. We became the 33rd institution to take this action, and the list now tops 100. We reinforced our fundamental commitment is “to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.” A good first step.

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We also borrowed from Alan Jacobs’ work and printed out and posted dozens of “Thinking Person’s Checklists” that featured items like, “Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness,” hoping to foster greater civility and more vigorous dialogue. Our noted Ashbrook Scholars program had already doffed textbooks, relying instead on primary documents for their rigorous study of history and political science.

Next, we coined the phrase, “Teaching students how to think, not what to think.” The positive response to this tagline was immediate and overwhelming. I even had one student stop me in a hallway and say, “My grandfather made me come to Ashland because he read your slogan and said any school that is committed to that ideal deserves my money!” Heartened by affirming reactions all around, we applied for and were granted a trademark for the phrase. We understood the inherent limitations of the phrase, as we surely teach students “what to think” when it comes to certain elements of math, science, and at least bare historical facts, but liked how it expressed our disdain for inculcation.

But we soon realized how difficult it is to stand behind our aspirational “how to think” stance in 21st century academic life in America. The initial challenge came in the wake and undertow of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor atrocities. We—like many universities—declared this a “watershed moment” in our history, one that demanded immediate and sustained action. Among other initiatives, we quickly constructed a module for all freshmen on race, which included “an introduction to diversity, equity, and inclusion concepts and competencies.”

While our intentions seemed pure enough, the struggle to formulate a “basic introduction” to these “concepts” while holding true to our trademarked mantra was formidable. Surely we had an obligation to “tell students what to think” about these complex issues. There are certain indisputable “facts” regarding white privilege, unconscious bias, and a number of other topics seminal to an introduction like this. We, of course, teach that racism is evil. We don't offer a set of anthropological theories and leave it up to the students (except in the sense that believing anything we teach is up to the students) whether or not to think that whites are superior, blacks and Jews are inferior, etc. We reject all of those propositions outright, with no pretense of neutrality whatsoever.

But some in our community believed we had a “duty” to educate our students a certain way about these topics. In particular, many felt as though Critical Race Theory (CRT) should be the primary underpinning for our students’ understanding of these issues. Others emphasized that “standard Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) theories” featured certain elements all students needed to know. We decided that we could not stand by our commitment to “unfettered intellectual inquiry” and not present all sides to our students—they deserved the right to formulate their own conclusions. If teaching CRT (and/including standard DEI theory) meant nothing more than opposing bigotry as traditionally understood and applying the moral truisms most of us learned as children, then yes, of course. But this is not the case: these theories rely on a set of highly controversial and theoretical principles that are not uniformly accepted. We were fine presenting and considering the approaches outlined in CRT and DEI, but out of respect for our students and commitment to the unencumbered pursuit of truth we could not treat any of it as settled truth. In the end, we wound up with a seminar that simply outlined very basic concepts, defined them from multiple viewpoints, and was ultimately more rudimentary than many hoped and probably not all that successful. “Teaching students how to think, not what to think” is harder business than we knew.

Our trials with our seminar on race emphasized a crucial dilemma facing American colleges and universities. In academia today, we realize that “viewpoint discrimination” has become so rampant that our essential function as places where the unencumbered pursuit of truth is indeed threatened. Intellectual intolerance has grown to a point that many faculty members feel silenced, and even students who voice “dangerous” opinions face intimidation and even expulsion. Places like FIRE and ACTA (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni) are fighting to preserve intellectual freedom on our campuses, but their good work is often muted in academe.

Our hope is that more schools will resist the cultural pressure to simply adopt what the “academic intelligentsia” ratify as acceptable. The best colleges in our nation established their reputations on being places that openly challenged us, and never “canceled” perspectives or limited subjects—they wrestled with them in ways that developed some of the best minds and people we have ever known. Let us rise once again to the high calling of unconstrained learning. It is hard work, but worth it.

Carlos Campo is the 30th president of Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio.  He previously served as president of Regent University.  He is serving as educational consultant for the Gates Foundation and as chair of the Alliance for Hispanic Education for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. 

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