The wave of political correctness that has swept across American college campuses for the past year—the trigger warnings, the microaggressions, the safe spaces and the speech codes—has been analyzed up and down by pundits, legal experts, and education officials alike. But one important piece of information has mostly been missing from the debate: the actual views of the college students who are at ground zero of the PC explosion. As a result, it’s always been unclear just how entrenched PC is on campuses—whether the kinds of outrageous stories that make it into the popular press are the workings of a small minority of students, or whether they represent the campus consensus.
A helpful new nationwide survey of college students’ attitudes toward PC-related issues conducted by McLaughlin and Associates gets us somewhat closer to understanding how college students feel about these issues. The full results of the survey, which was commissioned by Yale’s William F. Buckley Institute, are available here. Some of the findings suggest that “we have failed a generation,” in one journalist’s words—but not all of them. We’ve read the survey and highlighted some results that strike us as especially important:
- Ninety-five percent of students said free speech on campus is personally important to them. Of these, 70 percent said it was “very important.” As David French notes, this conviction tended to soften when the pollsters gave specific examples of offensive speech (more on that later), but at least the results of this question show that the concept of “free speech” still carries moral weight in the abstract for the great majority of students.
- Sixty-three percent of students said political correctness is a “problem” on campus. This suggests that advocates of open debate on campus can continue to have political success by exposing—and mocking, and rebutting—PC overreach.
- Eighty-seven percent say “there is educational value in listening to and understanding views and opinions that I may disagree with and are different from my own.”
- Fifty percent of students said they had “often felt intimidated to share beliefs that differ [from] their classmates.” Interestingly, there was not much of a difference between liberal and conservative students in this regard—51 percent of Democratic students, and 53 percent of Republican students, said they had felt intimidated. This does not speak well for the kind of intellectual environment campuses are fostering.
- A fairly large proportion of liberal students—30 percent—think that the First Amendment is “an outdated amendment that can no longer be applied in today’s society and needs to be changed.” Only 10 percent of conservative students felt the same way. Liberal students were once the champions of campus free expression, but on most of the survey questions broken down by political orientation, liberals are more hostile. Still, the fact that 64 percent of liberal students thought the First Amendment is “an important amendment that needs to be followed and respected in today’s society” may suggest that the more extreme anti-free speech activism we have been seeing on campus comes from a faction within the campus left that is still limited in size.
- Seventy-two percent of students said that students or professors who use language “that is considered racist sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive should be subject to disciplinary action.” It’s no wonder so many students are afraid to express views that are different from those of their peers—almost three-quarters of them think they should be punished if they say something that is “offensive”! Needless to say, the threat of official sanctions for speech on sensitive topics makes rigorous conversations about those topics nearly impossible.
- Fifty-one percent of students say that their university “should have speech codes to regulate speech for students and faculty.” The term “speech code” used to be politically loaded in favor of free speech advocates, because it was assumed that no one wanted their expression to be regulated in this way. Now speech codes appear to be rather popular—including, by the way, among conservative students, who favor them by a 44 to 42 margin. This suggests that the popularity of speech codes is just as much of a function of young peoples’ demand that they be coddled as it is a function of the rise of leftist politics on campus.
- Sixty-three percent of students favor trigger warnings—disclaimers on books and articles warning students that they might be offended. One wonders if students whose sensibilities are this fragile belong in college in the first place.
In sum, the results are grim, but there are also glimmers of hope. It’s as important as ever that liberals—that is, people who believe in open debate, pluralism, and intellectual diversity—keep fighting to make sure America’s campuses don’t descend further into coddling and politically correct orthodoxy.