Is the 'Eggshell Culture' on Campus Moving Into Our Public Square?
This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
America’s colleges and universities were once thought to be bastions of free thought and open inquiry. They served a civic purpose as much as educational — dedicated to growth and discovery, preparing engaged and informed citizens to lead across the business, government, and nonprofit sectors. They were home to rigorous research, critical thinking, and open debate.
Unfortunately, that is no longer the case for many colleges across the country. Instead, many do a great disservice to our nation’s young people by creating “eggshell environments,” which inhibit rather than encourage free speech and free inquiry. I borrow the term from Kim Barrett, a 2018 graduate of Smith College who noted in her campus newspaper that within her first days on campus, she “witnessed countless conversations that consisted of one person telling the other that their opinion was wrong. The word ‘offensive’ was almost always included in the reasoning.” Shortly after these incidents and for the rest of her four years, Barrett notes, “I learned, along with every other student, to walk on eggshells for fear that I may say something ‘offensive.’ That is the social norm here.”
Many have looked at the possible impact President Trump’s recent executive order on campus free speech may have in diversifying public speakers — mostly conservative — who can speak at our colleges. My hope, however, is that this public declaration draws greater attention to the real challenges students, mostly conservative and religiously faithful, face when seeking to express themselves on topics of a political nature.
As someone who speaks to hundreds of undergraduates each year, I’ve seen these problems firsthand. Whenever I speak before a group of conservative students I ask two questions. First, I query, “how many of you feel you’ve been dismissed or ridiculed by a professor in class for taking a conservative position in a class discussion?” In most cases, about 75 percent of the hands go up. Second, “how many of you feel you’ve been downgraded on a test or written assignment for taking a conservative position?” About half the students raise their hands.
This is not merely anecdotal. In 2017, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) conducted a national survey of 1,250 college students, asking the question, “Which of the following were reasons that you stopped yourself from sharing your ideas or opinions in class?” Self-described “conservative” or “very conservative” students were more than twice as likely (between 30 percent to 42 percent) as “liberal” or “very liberal” students to respond, “I thought the professor would give me a lower grade.” More broadly, the FIRE/YouGov survey found that of all students questioned, the top reasons offered for not “sharing your ideas or opinions outside the classroom,” were: “I didn’t want a debate, argument, or confrontation” (44 percent); “I thought I might offend someone” (39 percent), and “I thought someone would judge me” (39 percent).
Recent student surveys at elite academic institutions, ranging from Harvard in the Northeast to Pomona College in Southern California, also demonstrate how pervasive these challenges are for conservative students. These students make up a distinct minority at both schools — about 10 percent of Harvard’s 2018 graduating class described themselves as either “conservative” or “very conservative” and only 3 percent of Pomona’s students identified themselves as “conservative.” But both of these cohorts reported having to squelch their opinions in classroom discussions. In Harvard’s 2018 graduating class, 75 percent of Republican students said they withheld their opinion in the classroom. Across the country at Pomona, 70 percent of “very liberal” or “liberal” students felt “comfortable expressing my political views with my professor,” while half that percentage of “conservative” students — 35 percent — felt the same way.
This chilling of debate on campuses across the country has become a familiar story. Nor is it simply a conservative or liberal issue: The crisis in higher education is harming an entire generation of Americans. Tribalism and the suppression of free expression do not protect anyone in the long run, serving instead to stunt students’ academic growth and to inhibit them for cultivating the skills needed for vigorous participation in the public square.
What’s more, this “eggshell culture” is beginning to spread beyond the confines of our college campuses. The 2018 “Hidden Tribes” survey, conducted by researchers with the group More in Common, found that an overwhelming majority of Americans (80 percent) across almost all ideological, racial, income, and education categories view “political correctness as a problem in our country.” The researchers coined a term for those not on the political extremes who shared this aversion to the growing eggshell culture: the “exhausted majority.” The quotations from the “Hidden Tribes” focus groups read much like Kim Barrett’s description of life at Smith College.
The president’s executive order, combined with a growing body of research, provides an opening for a much-needed public conversation about the state of civic discourse and free expression on America’s college campuses and beyond. It’s not hyperbole to wonder whether the future of our public square depends on it.
Pete Peterson is dean of Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy, and co-director of its American Project.