Twitter, it seems, is finally acknowledging what we’ve all known all along: It’s a digital echo chamber. According to a recent New York Times article, the social media company is trying tactics that will introduce content from a different political perspective into users’ feeds.
It’s a worthy goal and one that we all should strive to imitate. Political isolation is weakening the fabric of our civil society and wreaking havoc on our national discourse.
Nevertheless, overcoming political isolation is a particularly important goal for educators. Although we often think of such isolation as an issue affecting large public universities, this is far from being the case. As my journalism students showed me, colleges across the country, and of all political persuasions, have the same problem.
Last year, I told some of my students about a book I read (“Republican Like Me” by Ken Stern) and I asked “Can you believe there aren’t any conservatives in his neighborhood or circle of friends?!”
“Well, I never knew any liberals growing up,” one student replied.
I was taken aback, but soon realized she made a significant and important point. Political isolation is not one-sided. Many conservatives criticize liberals for never leaving the ivory tower, the East Coast or California. But they fail to realize that they do the same, surrounding themselves with like-minded people and committing the same sin.
I grew up in liberal-leaning Boulder County, Colorado, but I knew plenty of conservatives. In school, we often debated political candidates, issues and ideas, sometimes being assigned a position opposite of what we believed personally. Although this was an excellent challenge, it would probably be rejected at most prestigious universities today — a sad reality, as such a debate would arguably have the most merit at these institutions. Instead of opening themselves up to new ideas, students demand to be “kept safe” from opposing viewpoints. Supporting the other side, even for the sake of argument, would be unthinkable.
A much-cited Brookings Institution survey of college students found that 53 percent of students would prefer “a positive learning environment” in which “certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people” over an “open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people.”
It’s a sad reality, reflecting a significant shift in our educational landscape. Twenty, 15, even 10 years ago, a phrase like “an open learning environment” could have been found in a school’s mission statement. Who wouldn’t want an open learning environment? Today, apparently, more than half of college students wouldn’t. They’d prefer a “positive, safe” one, even if that means they leave campus four years later saddled with debt and full of platitudes and aggressions, rather than knowledge and passion.
Ultimately, what has happened is that the comfort of affirmation has replaced the challenge of learning. Hillsdale College has an Honor Code, which all students sign upon acceptance. The code states, in part: “Through education the student rises to self-government.” It does not say “through head-patting and safe spaces” or “through affirming students’ worldviews,” but through education, which should, fundamentally, present challenges and new ideas to students. By addressing and questioning those ideas (and their own), students become stronger and wiser.
Of course, it is not just students who are responsible for confronting these challenges. It is a vital part of being an effective teacher. It is my job to expose students to new ideas and arguments in the context of my course material, allowing them to develop their own opinions and eventually rise to self-government. We do college students a disservice if we preach to the choir or deride “the other side.” We prevent them from becoming the kind of thoughtful, nuanced thinkers our country so desperately needs.
Thankfully, my students are unusual among their peers across the country because they are willing to hear, understand and discuss viewpoints or ideas with which they may not agree. In recent semesters, campus groups have hosted talks and debates on climate change and immigration, and even a lecture series on the Reformation (always controversial on our campus). Contrary to what many may assume about this small, conservative college, the students are much more open-minded and accepting than those we hear about elsewhere. All these events took place without protests or shouting.
We all create safe spaces by limiting our social media consumption and conversation to what we agree with and what makes us feel safe. But at the end of the day, it does no good to go on nodding with our like-minded friends if we don’t make an effort to understand our peers across the aisle. This problem must first be snuffed out where it seems to flare: in the college classroom. Encourage questions. Play devil’s advocate. Set an example by listening, then responding. Support student groups that host events and speakers. This problem won’t fix itself.
• Maria Servold is a freelance writer and the assistant director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.