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Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania.
In his fiery first speech after winning the presidency, Joe Biden called on Americans to turn down the heat. “It is time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again,” Biden declared on Nov. 7. “Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end here and now.”
Most people at colleges and universities probably interpreted this remark as an attack on President Donald Trump, who has polluted our political culture with his lies, slurs and rants. But I heard it differently: as a critique of us. Instead of challenging Trump’s illiberal spirit, we imitated it. We became the demon that we denounce.
The latest piece of evidence comes from a survey of 22,000 students at 55 colleges and universities by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Roughly three-quarters of Republicans and half of Democrats reported that they censor themselves, for fear of incurring the wrath of others.
At the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach, one conservative student flatly declared that his opinions were “not acceptable” on campus. “I’ve rarely felt comfortable expressing my own views,” the student wrote. “When I first expressed them word got around my college house and I was quickly excommunicated and constantly avoided by most residents.”
Significantly, Penn students on the left experienced similar pressures. Palestinians said that they suppressed their views of Israel, lest Jewish students denounce them as anti-Semitic. A Bernie Sanders supporter reported that a professor called “Medicare for All” “socialist propaganda,” but the student was afraid to object.
Other Penn students also described courses where the professor endorsed a singular point of view, which they did not feel they could counter. “The class is just an echo chamber of people parroting what the professor believes, rather than anyone actively engaging the material,” one student wrote. “But I feel like I’m the only one to notice or be uncomfortable with this lack of discourse, so I keep quiet.”
Many faculty members report feeling exactly the same way. In a 2017 national survey of nearly 1,000 professors, two-thirds of conservatives and one-third of liberals said they avoided sharing their opinions because they feared negative reactions. Of course we don’t want faculty imposing their beliefs on the students in their charge. But many of them are biting their tongues outside of class, which speaks to the generally repressive atmosphere on our campuses.
So if your college initiates a set of diversity trainings, you probably won’t tell anyone about the wide swath of research suggesting that these trainings either have a negligible impact on racial attitudes or make them worse. People might conclude that you don’t support diversity, period. That’s just too big a risk to take, especially if you don’t have tenure.
Or if your university releases a statement condemning acts of police violence, you won’t ask out loud why it didn’t also denounce the rioting that followed some of them. For the record, Biden has condemned both. But if you repeat what he said, dear professor, you might be reviled as a racist by the same colleagues who celebrated Biden’s victory last weekend.
I’m a liberal Democrat, and I celebrated as much as anybody else. Trump injected hateful bile into our political bloodstream, dehumanizing his critics at nearly every turn. I am relieved and elated that he will no longer be our president.
But I’m also saddened by the way his vindictive spirit has infused our entire culture, including our institutions of higher education. I grew up imagining the university as a place where you were free to pursue any line of argument as far as you could take it, so long as you could marshal evidence for it. I do not recognize that place now.
“We have to stop treating our opponent as an enemy,” Biden said on Nov. 7. “They are not our enemies: They are Americans.”
Let’s hope that we can revive the same humility and humanity in our colleges and universities. It is time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again. Let this grim era of demonization begin to end, here and now. Please.