Debra Mashek, a psychology professor at Harvey Mudd College, was leading a class discussion about intellectual humility this past semester when the conversation came to a halt. Ms. Mashek asked the students to think of ways in which, during an argument, they could signal intellectual humility—that is, admit they don’t have all the answers and are open to other perspectives. A white woman suggested prefacing statements with something like: “I could be crazy, but . . .” A black student then objected to the word “crazy.” He said it marginalizes people with mental illness, especially incarcerated black men.
A few months later, Ms. Mashek was advising a student about which classes he should take when he said: “With this class, I could kill two birds—” He stammered and then abandoned the idiom: “I could complete two requirements with one course.” Ms. Mashek asked why he had censored himself. “I didn’t want to offend you,” she recalls him saying, “because it’s a violent statement and we are not supposed to talk about violent things.”
The censorious climate of higher education has predictably created a culture of self-censorship. Two-thirds of this year’s graduating seniors at Harvard said “they had at some point chosen not to express an opinion in an academic setting during their time at Harvard out of fear that it would offend others,” according to a Harvard Crimson poll.
But some students and professors are standing up against the new culture of safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and bias response teams. Ms. Mashek took a leave of absence from Harvey Mudd to become executive director of Heterodox Academy, an organization founded in 2015 to promote viewpoint diversity on campus. Its members, more than 2,000 professors and graduate students in the U.S. and beyond, are leading a movement in favor of free speech and inquiry. They held their first-ever conference Friday in New York.
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