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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories discusses...

Students and Speech

with Anthony G. Page

The discussion of Prof. Douglas Young’s “Putting Students First,” begun in issue 870 with “Students First,” continues with observations from a student about to begin university studies in the U.S.

[Prof. D. Young]: Making everything worse are the outrageous costs of tuition and textbooks that have followed the huge increases in government grants and loans to students in recent decades. Colleges have responded by spiking costs ever more, causing far too many students to go deeply in debt.

[Anthony P.] The author is right about textbooks. Textbooks are sold by third-party companies, but universities could try to stop price-gouging.

[Don W.] Thank you, Anthony. A few notes to continue the discussion: Textbooks and Education

[Prof. D. Young] “Any college worth its salt is a true free marketplace of ideas.” Yet there has been a huge increase in campuses with constipated “hate speech” codes or climates hostile to free inquiry.

[Anthony P.] The rhetoric is that professors label as "hate speech" ideas they don't like, and thus stifle the confluence of ideas. But what's not being considered is this: students must be able to express their ideas without the threat of harassment within the classroom. For example:

Outside the classroom, such behavior is common, and it's a reality we have to live with. However, inside a university, a place of learning, administrators and professors need to prevent name-calling, because it stifles the free expression of ideas.

[Don W.] Again, thanks, Anthony. You’ve listed examples of “name-calling” that most of us may have heard or heard of at some point. But I think we need to consider location carefully. In my own and others’ experience, the examples you cite have not occurred in classroom discussions.

In a classroom setting, students are individuals; they form mobs only when they sense the opportunity to stage an academic power play. Normally, they know that intemperate language will almost certainly harm their social status. And what instructor would allow — let alone encourage — a class discussion to disintegrate into a barroom brawl?

The name-calling — like “dog whistles” in politics — is a form of flag-waving normally done in public. Some people raise verbal “flags” in order to salute them and rally troops to their cause. Others may well ask, “What on earth are you talking about?”

The same sort of “flag-waving” happened in ancient times. One of my favorites: Someone in a forum — not in Alexandria — announces, “The world is round!” Factions form immediately: “Nutjob! What are you, some kind of astronomer or sailor? We know the tall tales they like to tell. Take a hike!” In a university classroom, we’d expect the response: “How can you prove it?”

“Flag-waving” also takes the form of what I call “bumper stickers.” They’re usually political slogans recited thoughtlessly, as though everybody understood them. They’re a form of the “quackspeak” that Orwell illustrates in 1984.

My favorite “bumper sticker” is the ultimate classic in divine humor. Emperor Caesar Augustus had his own self-promotion engraved on Roman coinage. His advertising would make today’s autocrats fume with envy. Christians borrowed it word for word. It was the most effective feat of flag-waving of all time, because everybody knew what it meant.

“What are you talking about?” can be a great conversation-starter, because it can start people thinking. Even smart people can recite slogans; intelligence consists in asking what those slogans mean.

Responses welcome!

date Copyright © September 14, 2020 by Bewildering Stories

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