Why More and More Students Won’t Speak Up in Class

After I gave a public lecture on ‘Socialization and Fear’ at a university in England, a young professor came up to me and said, “You forgot to mention the biggest fear we face as teachers – the fear that many students have of opening their mouths.”

Since this encounter, I have met numerous academics who tell me, “I can’t get them to speak in seminars.” My stock response to their predicament was to indicate that getting some undergraduates to participate in seminar discussions has always been difficult- ‘so find a way of giving them the confidence to find their voice.’

Don’t Become Judged

After reflecting on the problem of the silent seminar and discussing this problem with some undergraduates, I have concluded that the issue at stake is not simply the old problem of shyness and fear.

[Why Pomona Students Are Afraid to Say What They Think]

Many of the students I met had outgoing and lively personalities. They also produced excellent written work and expected to do well in their course work. Yet, they were hesitant about speaking in seminar discussions. They gave a variety of reasons for their silence. Some said that they did not want to be judged. Others were worried that their words might be misconstrued or misunderstood by others. Some of the undergraduates were worried about appearing to be too critical of other students. One brilliant and eloquent young woman told me that though she is prepared to air her views one to one, she never opens her mouth in seminars.

Only a couple of the students I talked to used the term “self-censor,” but it became evident from their comments that they had become unusually guarded in the way that they expressed themselves. As one second-year male undergraduate explained, “people are all too ready to savage you if you use the wrong word.” Another student confided that “sooner or later someone will object that I offended them.”

Self-Censorship Is Safer

It seems that a significant minority of students have adopted the practice of self-censorship in universities on both sides of the Atlantic. A survey, published by the Harvard Crimson indicated that a significant portion of this year’s graduating class was self-censoring their opinion and not debating in public. According to the report, around two-thirds of students who were surveyed had “at some point chosen not to express an opinion in an academic setting out of fear that it would offend others.” The survey indicated that 78 percent of registered Republicans said they ‘withheld opinions in class’ compared to 59 percent of registered Democrats and 73 percent of registered Independents.

[Campus Censorship Is Leaching Into Business and the Arts]

Some may argue that a reluctance to express an opinion on the ground that it might offend someone should be praised as an example of sensitive behavior. But regardless of whether it is voiced, it is through articulating an opinion and being prepared to engage in a discussion around it that students develop their ideas and acquire a measure of intellectual independence.

It is evident that it is not the fear of speaking that inhibits students at Ivy League universities to air their views. Unlike the classical fear of speaking which has been noted since the ancient Greeks, what we see today is very different. Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking referred to the performance of oratory or a public presentation. In the case of twenty-first-century students who have switched off from expressing their opinion, what’s at stake is not anxiety about a public presentation but simply a reluctance to converse or discuss a seminar topic.

I am not yet certain how to account for the practice of self-censoring. However, one of its drivers is a lack of clarity about what can be and what cannot be said. Uncertainty about the rules of engagement encourages anxiety about being misunderstood and provoking hostile reactions. Many students have expressed the concern that their opinions could offend some of their peers. From their standpoint, going public with their opinion constitutes a potential hassle.

[How ‘Social Justice’ Warriors Kill Free Thought]

Self-censorship is potentially more damaging to campus life than the formal regulation of academic life. As academics, we need to explain to ourselves and to our students the importance of open and tolerant communication. Students need to know that their refusal to speak deprives them and others of an opportunity to learn from one another. It is through the stating of an opinion that we demonstrate our willingness to take our ideas seriously and it is through our openness to other’s criticism that we create an environment hospitable to intellectual clarification.

Self-censorship also has emboldened zealous advocates of identity politics. Many of the foolish outbursts of intolerance on campuses occur because activists know that their behavior is unlikely to be criticized by their peers. Most students are far from happy with their identity on campuses, but unfortunately, instead of speaking up, they prefer to keep their opinions to themselves. Until students find their voice, the university will continue to be subjugated to the forces of intolerance.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. His latest book, "How Fear Works; The Culture of Fear in The 21st Century," is published by Bloomsbury Press.

7 thoughts on “Why More and More Students Won’t Speak Up in Class

  1. Fear of offending and waving the sensitivity flag is exactly what we do not need now. What we need is the freedom and courage to criticize many things. When things worth criticizing are met with silence, too often the silence is taken for approval. Which gives those still voicing opinions and who have no fear of being seen as incorrect or insensitive (not necessarily because they actually are correct or sensitive – they may be astonishingly neither) the false belief that their wrongness is actually very right. Also, a false belief that their freedom to speak without fear is a positive and not a negative thing, because their freedom is not balanced out by the freedom to object. In this way do they become Orwell’s pigs.
    All these “safe spaces” and anti-bullying policies and protocols make a mockery out of higher learning when the academic space itself becomes unsafe for any who wish to voice or express an opinion contrary to the popular ideology.

    When it comes to the real freedom required to build the metaphorical brick and mortar required to uphold and sustain lasting intellectual results, they build houses of cards instead.

  2. You should stop expecting students to speak on these things. They’ve already learned what the orthodoxy is, and many have found it intellectually lacking. That’s the independence you say you want. They have already achieved it.

    If you want to produce intellectual growth, give them meatier stuff to chew. The prevailing correctness these days makes all these human centered fields one-dimensional. You should not pretend that it’s more than that. It may not be your fault, but it’s not fair to put the burden for that problem on the students.

    They are smart enough to see a no-win situation for what it is. Respect them for making a a rational choice. To do the really right thing, stop putting them in this awkward position.

  3. There is a fairly simple solution to this problem. Forget about what occurs in the regular classroom. Hold invitation only meetings off campus, best in a private room in a bar and make sure that booze is widely available. And exclude social justice warriors as impediments to the life of the mind.

    Similarly, arrange for “controversial” speaks to talk off campus and by invitation only. Rent a room at the local Holiday Inn and have a reception afterwards where students need not worry about being called out for offensiveness.

    All this could be accomplished cheaply.

  4. “I’m not yet certain how to account for the practice of self-censoring?”

    C’mon now. How difficult can it really be?

    Do we struggle to account for the fact that it’s difficult to swim against a riptide….make upstream progress against a downstream rapids….fly directly into the teeth of a raging hurricane? Of course not. We know completely and can sympathize totally with those who seek to move against the irresistible force.

    Did we struggle to understand why more Germans did not take a stand against the terror of the Gestapo? Why more Soviets didn’t speak-up in opposition to the NKVD?

    Why do students who ‘think differently’ self-censor?

    Cause they want to have a life. They want to have friends….go out on dates…..be liked (or at least tolerated)….receive an occasional invitation to a cool party. That’s why. Or equally we could say they want to avoid being beaten, humiliated, publicly shamed, their car keyed, their room trashed, accused of sexual assault, lose their scholarship, and be kicked off campus. That’s also why.

    We all self-censor when we know — without a scintilla of doubt — that speaking-up, expressing a non-progressive point of view in a publicly progressive setting yields only pain. Either that or we learn to embrace the suck.

    Our 1984 comes 35 years after the fact but still we hear that clock strike 13 on this our own “bright cold day in April”. The Thought Police are everywhere…along with their Title IX Kangaroo Courts, Grand Inquisitors, Bias Response Teams, and Mandatory Sensitivity ReEducation Sessions. Say hello to the New Red Guard – same as the Old Red Guard.

    But heck, let’s try it the other way – see what happens.

    Let’s all stand up and loudly declare and proceed to argue any one of the following: “20% of all women are not raped on campus”….there is no sexual assault epidemic….#metoo is garbage….systemic racism doesn’t exist…..the global warming whooptedoo is hype-science… cultural appropriation is crap…marriage is between a man and a woman….gender is not fluid….men cannot become women, nor women men….border security IS important….free speech IS offensive speech and we have a right to both… etc etc. etc. Any one of them.

    And it won’t matter how many facts you have….how much evidence you can muster…how reasonable and rational your points. The very fact that you spoke against the Dogma of Diversity/Equality/Inclusion/& Social Justice already indicts you.

    As Prof. Abrams has learned at Sarah Lawrence….to speak against the prevailing wind reaps the whirlwind…and when he pointed out in his Op-Ed piece for the Times that College Administrations lean heavily Left, students trashed his office & his college president told him he “created a hostile work environment” and suggested he resign.
    Nothing like a few public crucifixions to improve morale and silence dissent. Oppression & intimidation — always a winning combo.

    1. Sad but very, very real.

      I was way more scared at UMass Amherst than I ever was as a lobsterman or firefighter.

    2. The red guard bit.
      If they actually read history, they might be a little more inclined to self analyze….yet as narcissistic as they tend to be, that is not the direction of their focus.
      Of course many of them think they have invented a brand new thing that never existed in the world.
      Well….when I was their age I thought that way, though I was easily forgiven, because really, I did no damage. To anyone. In any way.
      The trail of broken professors, lost jobs, careers, livelihoods these beasts leave behind – should be the indictment stamped on their life and times.

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