03 June 2015

Academic speech blotter

I've seen versions of this argument cropping up a lot over the last several months, most notably Jon Chait's article. While I am sympathetic to the cause of academic freedom and freedom of speech involved, I'm not sure there is a case being made that this is actually being stifled or not. I see or hear a lot of anecdotes, not much data. What's actually going on? Who is being stifled? What is being shut down in debate? Where is this concentrated or occurring? Is it even new, or is it morphing to affect new disciplines from before, etc? Is this a representative sampling of students at large causing problems with academic discourse or a chosen few rebels? Not much of that is being reported in a comprehensive way. It's all haphazard stories of "this happened here, and that happened there" without someone actually looking at the dots to see if they connect in this way. So I don't know if I should take this seriously as a problem or not, whether to take the Chicken Littles as accurate that the sky has fallen or whether they have suddenly decided tin foil is a sensible fashion choice, or something in between that remains as yet undefined.

It's kind of like the rape on campus crisis. There the statistics being used are awfully suspect if not deliberately and hopelessly flawed that it is difficult to interpret what is going on. There's a lot of complex variables at work, sexual predators, issues of consent and sexual communication being vague, alcohol and drug experimentation, etc. I'm not immune to the idea there is actually a significant problem in either or both cases, and indeed am sympathetic to the idea of reducing the incidence of rape and increasing the academic liberty of students and professors, but nobody's actually proved the scope and scale of the issue yet and the proximate causes and dimensions remain unclear as a result.

It's also unclear what this means for actual behavior once students graduate. If this is a disturbing trend for feelings and identity over discourse, what does that mean when they hit "the real world"? (I'm not very concerned about the professors in the intermediate space versus the outcomes for students in the longer term, perhaps I should be more worried about their job security, but I'm not). There isn't any evidence put forward that this current generation is less comfortable or less tolerant of ideas than others before it once they complete their studies. I haven't found this talking to younger people at least. They're just as capable of being cynical and disreputable as their elders I usually find. Just in different spaces than before.

This for example: "Under such a conception, people become more concerned with signaling goodness, usually through semantics and empty gestures, than with actually working to effect change.", doesn't seem like a new problem with this generation over the previous 2-3 and there's little evidence put forward to suggest that it is so. Most of the people I talk to about politics/policy who are older also care more about signaling concern than effectiveness of policies. Indeed, one could argue that's the entire basis behind Prohibition and the Drug War, neither of which started with the current college student.

There's already been a fire burning for decades and apparently people are only now beginning to smell the smoke? What gives? What are this?
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