The mistakes of the past are being repeated in this country, right now. The State Senate in Texas last week advanced one of three bills aimed at public colleges that would ban diversity, equity and inclusion activities, end tenure, and fire professors accused of indoctrinating their students. Several states, including Georgia, Idaho and most notably Florida, have passed varying laws making it easier to ban books and limit what American educators can teach.
Dozens of other bills are pending in state legislatures around the country with the promise of affecting what tens of millions of students will or won’t be allowed to learn, and exerting a chilling effect on educators who fear for their jobs. The recent actions take aim at teaching about so-called “divisive concepts,” including the history of slavery in America and its legacy in modern times, structural racism, evolving concepts of gender identity, sexuality and L.G.B.T.Q. issues, and anything to do with diversity, however defined. They are just as dangerous and misguided as attempts to outlaw the teaching of evolution, or Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of people for their political beliefs.
Like their forebears, the proponents of these laws are on the wrong side of history. They are acting out of political expediency, exploiting convenient political wedge issues. They are mounting a direct and dangerous attack on America’s longstanding commitment to free expression, democracy and education. Legislating toward a future where the state decrees what ideas may be taught and debated upends a bedrock principle of this country.
I am the president of a private, nonprofit university in Rhode Island, a state founded on the values of freedom and tolerance. Brown University is not immediately threatened by new or pending laws affecting public education in Arizona, Florida, Texas, or the numerous other states where similar legislation has been introduced. I am free to speak against what’s happening, but the educational leaders in the states in question, particularly those at the helm of public institutions, are in very different positions. The new laws censor their voices as well as those of their faculty and students.
Proponents of these laws attempt to justify them by repeating claims that universities are places where political correctness runs rampant and students are intolerant of alternative viewpoints. In my experience, these problems are much less pervasive than media coverage suggests, but they do exist. Students should not violate university policies and shout down speakers they don’t agree with. And peer pressure, like cancel culture in the larger world, is unfortunate and sometimes suppresses debate. Universities work hard to prevent and address these problems. We need to support open inquiry and debate both inside and outside of classrooms.