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ABOVE: Melissa Click, a University of Missouri professor who teaches communication and journalism, was caught on tape threatening a journalist for covering a campus protest. She was subsequently fired for this and other such incidents she incited.

About this week’s feature

Is freedom of speech harmful for college students? Why is this question even being asked? In this week’s eSkeptic, in light of recent eruptions of student protests at numerous American colleges and universities, Michael Shermer discusses the notions of trigger warnings, microagressions, the importance of political viewpoint diversity and freedom of speech.

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His book The Moral Arc is now out in paperback. Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer.

What Went Wrong?
Campus Unrest, Viewpoint Diversity, and Freedom of Speech

by Michael Shermer

The French political journalist and supporter of the Royalist cause in the French Revolution, Jacques Mallet du Pan, famously summarized what often happens to extremists: “the Revolution devours its children.” I was thinking about this idiom—and its doppelgänger “what goes around comes around”—while writing a lecture for a talk I was invited to give at my alma mater California State University, Fullerton on the topic: “Is freedom of speech harmful for college students?” The short answer is an unflinching and unequivocal “No.”

Why is this question even being asked? When I was in college free speech was the sine qua non of the academy. It is what tenure was designed to protect! The answer may be found in the recent eruptions of student protests at numerous American colleges and universities, including Amherst, Brandeis, Brown, Claremont McKenna, Oberlin, Occidental, Princeton, Rutgers, University of California, University of Missouri, Williams, Yale, and others. Most of these paroxysms were under the guise of protecting students from allegedly offensive speech and disagreeable ideas—defined differently by different interest groups—with demands for everything from trigger warnings and safe spaces to microaggressions and speaker disinvitations.

Between the 1960s and the 2010s, what went wrong?

Students at Rutgers University protest a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos by smearing red on their faces and shouting 'hate' when he challenged them to hear other points of view.

Students at Rutgers University protest a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos by smearing red on their faces and shouting “hate” when he challenged them to hear other points of view.

The Problem

Trigger warnings are supposed to be issued to students before readings, classroom lectures, film screenings, or public speeches on such topics as sex, addiction, bullying, suicide, eating disorders, and the like, involving such supposed prejudices as ableism, homophobia, sizeism, slut shaming, transphobia, victim-blaming, and who-knows-what-else, thereby infantilizing students instead of preparing them for the real world where they most assuredly will not be so shielded. At Oberlin College, for example, students leveled accusations against the administration of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and the ne plus ultra in gender politics, cissexist heteropatriarchy, the enforcement of “gender binary and gender essentialism” against those who are “gender variant (non-binary) and trans identities.” The number of such categories has expanded into an alphabet string, LGBTQIA, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual and any other underrepresented sexual, gender, and/or romantic identities.1 This is not your parents’ protest against Victorian sexual mores, and the list of demands by Oberlin students would be unrecognizable to even the most radical 60’s hippies:

  • The creation of a school busing system for Oberlin, Ohio’s K–12 schools, paid for by the college.
  • The establishment of special, segregated black-only “safe spaces” across campus.
  • A more inclusive audition process in the Conservatory that does not privilege Western European theoretical knowledge over playing ability.
  • The creation of a bridge program that will recruit recently-released prisoners to enroll at Oberlin for undergraduate courses.

The most audacious demand was “an $8.20/hour stipend for black student leaders who are organizing protest efforts.” These students wanted to be paid for protesting!

Read the full article



  1. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    Sigh. Dr Schermer is making a tempest in a teapot. He complains about safe spaces and trigger warnings, but his worst complaint is about those who are protesting trivial matters and especially those who are protesting things they’d support if they thought it through. To him I say “They don’t call youth ‘callow’ for nothing!” Anyone who has ever met a teenager or early twenty-something knows that they tend to be full of passion but less full of judgment. All of us were like them to some extent… and it was going through the processes of protesting the wrong thing that has helped us gain wisdom about what to oppose and how to do it. This generation will never gain that wisdom if we don’t let them make their own mistakes.

    Out of intellectual honesty, Dr Schermer should acknowledge that in all of the protest cases he cited there were students who opposed the protestors and espoused the principles that he champions. It is not a case of all college students have gone crazy – it is a case of the crazy protests get more notoriety.

    That brings up another matter, his fear of safe spaces and trigger warnings is baseless. Worst, he justifies it with an appeal to toughening up students. I have been teaching college for many years and read numerous mission statements for schools – not one of them made a point of toughening up students. Most of them mentioned creating environments that supported the educational process.

    Trigger warnings are not infantilizing students – I cannot fathom how Dr Schermer can say that. By giving students a ‘heads up’ of adult/unsettling content in class material (as is done for movies, TV shows, and video games) you allow them to ‘steel themselves’ for it. Professors already hand out copies of a course syllabus that explains what to expect regarding assignments, content, SLO’s, etc… so why not let them know about ‘adult content’? If it is OK for a student to choose Astronomy as a general ed class because it doesn’t have much math, then it is OK for them to choose an English class that doesn’t cover books involving rape and murder.

    Dr Schermer’s complaints about safe spaces show an embarrassing ignorance of what kind of safety they are intended to provide. Please read up on them before complaining about them.

    I must say, I am very disappointed in this column. I had thought Dr Schermer was far more perceptive than that.

  2. Ron Smith says:

    Astronomy not having much math? Huh? Maybe she was thinking of Astrology:)

    • Bob Pease says:

      Each formula/equation in a General Studies Science-related textbook at the 100 or 200 level costs a 1 % decline in sales
      or choice by the department.

      Personally, I think I think HR and other important things can be nicely presented with well -explained graphs.

      I am ignoring the fact that many colleges have departments whose professors and administration are bribed to give phony grades to Football guys who are involved in a criminal subcultues which offers hard dope adn prostitution to high school age possible recruits.

  3. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    It is well known among STEM educators that Astronomy and Geology are the most popular physical science general ed requirements because they do not have ‘a lot of math’. Check out an ‘Introduction to Astronomy’ textbook sometime – you will see it has very few equations.

    • Bob Pease says:

      This seems to support my point that Math in texts at this level is inversely proportional to success of the text
      A differential equation underneath a really good graphical presentation destroys most readers’ interest in the graph
      as really being beyond the ken of those who are not snobbish cognescenti.

      RJ Pease

  4. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    @Bob You are kinda, sorta right – but bear in mind this is for general education courses and not core courses. I seriously doubt the adoption of a senior level quantum mechanics textbook would increase if there were _less_ math. I doubt the students would approve of that any more than their profs – especially if they hope to get into grad school.

    Also, this effect is more on a course level than a textbook level: Humanities majors tend to avoid classes with a lot of math (just as many STEM majors avoid classes with a tremendous amount of reading & writing). The students know their strengths.

    Consequently, most Intro to Astro textbooks have the same (small) quantity of equations in them… but they do have many plots, charts and diagrams. As you say, a good plot or diagram with a good explanation can nicely explain many of these things.

    And I’ll risk taking this on a further tangent – today a colleague and I discussed the strange phenomenon in physics classes where a student can solve all of the equations but cannot come up with a coherent conceptual description of what is happening. The danger of that is, sometimes, if you have no intuitive feel for what is going on, you can blindly plug numbers into an equation and get a nonsensical result.

    Getting back to my original comment – perhaps I was too harsh on Dr Schermer but I still think he’s making a mountain out of a molehill. It seems like every generation looks upon the younger ones judging them to be too soft, too sloppy, too foolish, etc. Aren’t there quotes of ancient Greeks complaining about the next generation? Didn’t we do silly & misguided things, too?

    • Bob Pease says:

      ***********”today a colleague and I discussed the strange phenomenon in physics classes where a student can solve all of the equations but cannot come up with a coherent conceptual description of what is happening. The danger of that is, sometimes, if you have no intuitive feel for what is going on, you can blindly plug numbers into an equation and get a nonsensical result.”***********

      you hit my “Major Rave ” topic

      A banking account of 1000 dollars compounded daily at 3% per year. how much is it worth in ten years if no withderawals or deposits are made.

      I haven’t calculated this lately But I am sure that several students will turn in an answer exceeding the GNP of the entire earth and not question such an answer,

      If I ask them how much does YOUR bank account pay , they will always tell me some approximation of he current market .
      Obvious question

      Didn’t it BOTHER you to turn the answer you did for credit ??

      Standard remark
      NAW,,The Math world is different than the Real World.
      I just hope I can pull a “C”..
      Ather all , I Got B in Algebra 2 in high school!

      THEY are reading at 3 to 5 grades below any reasonalbe reading standard when they get into college.

      Most of my freshman and sophomore college students even at a so-called 200 level quoth

      “I can sure work the Math OK but i just don’t GET “Word probems ”

      Doc sdethink sez
      they can’t READ well enough to UNDERSTAND the problem.

      ” It doesn’t do you much good to “DO” mathematics tricks if you don’t know WHEN to DO them ”

      Standard reply I get from Teachers

      “We don’t have time to teach them analytical thinking because we gotta teach the TEST if we want to keep our jobs”

      Sic Transit

      RJ Pease

      • Bad Boy Scientist says:

        I completely understand. To be honest, at some times in my education I was one of those who was able to do the math but didn’t have a good conceptual understanding. It bothered me so I made it a point in grad school to be able to explain everything to my grandmother as Feynman used to suggest.

        An old professor used to say “Physicists who can only do the math but not comprehend are engineers.” It was funny, but I think completely wrong – engineers need better conceptual understanding than math skills to know when it is ‘good enough.’ That is a trick – the have one’s knowledge be good enough.

        One major mistake of educators is expecting a student who just learns something to have any depth of understanding – it takes time working on concepts to develop that. There’s some saying about craftsmen that the journeyman knows how to cut accurately but the master knows how accurately to cut. I think this ties in with my gripe of Dr Schermer’s column because it seems like he’s expecting college students to act with as much wisdom as someone who has been an activist for decades.

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