A better free speech environment on campus requires better listening from students

July 2, 2019

Surveying news headlines, the issue of free speech on college campuses can come across as just another sound bite in the mainstream media’s culture wars. Right-wing pundits claim leftist censorship in education threatens core democratic values. Left-wing commentators accuse the right of using the First Amendment as a weapon to protect hateful speech and its agenda.

As a student, I find these narratives misconstrue the reality of the situation. They miss a major source of the conflict: students’ underdeveloped ability to listen.

We students are as idealistic, enthusiastic, and driven as past generations, yet in many ways I find we are unprepared for the civil discourse that college requires. On campuses since 2013, there have been repeated, high-profile examples of campus speaker disinvitations, an increase in the use of the heckler’s veto to shut down speech, and increased calls from students for the censorship or termination of faculty. Genuine passion drives students to become activists, but it is precisely this enthusiasm which sometimes prevents us from listening. In open discussions, our eagerness to share can deafen us to what is being shared back. There is a lack of intellectual humility

At my own school, the University of Pennsylvania, the Polybian Society is a nonpartisan intellectual political society. At weekly symposiums, students dissect complex issues in discussions structured to promote free inquiry. Without effective listening, these discussions do not fulfill their founding mission of intellectual discovery. 

During a colonialism symposium in the fall of last year, a student raised a contentious argument in politically incorrect terms. Glances shot around the room, and the majority responded with incredulity, stifled grins, and mild outrage. They mounted cutting rebuttals, but did not pose any questions to the speaker, or try to understand where his argument was coming from. The conversation could have led to deeper understanding or a respectful disagreement, but was overshadowed by orthodoxy and groupthink. 

In my experience, it’s in these sorts of political discussions that the pitfalls of poor listening are most evident. Discussions break down or result in uneasy stalemates. Students leave more at odds with each other than when the conversation began. They leave feeling misunderstood or unheard by their opponents. When communication fails, activist students have, at times, resorted to acts of censorship and violent protest.

I’ve seen exasperated students cite the freedom of speech in an attempt to say, “See, you HAVE to let me speak, by law!” If students are citing their First Amendment right just to be heard, what are the chances their opponent is earnestly listening to their rival’s point of view?

Poor listening also harms students personally. Under the guise of “conversation,” I have watched one student dump information on another student, who sits impatiently with pursed lips, waiting to dump information back. If I am able to sense my own frustration in these situations, I find myself subconsciously blaming them for my discomfort.

According to research done by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” these failures to connect could produce negative emotions or cognitive distortions, with impacts on students’ mental health. In the last few years at Penn, a string of suicides has increased visibility and awareness of mental health issues. I have seen friends begin going to CAPS together, bringing the basic empathic listening skills they learned back into their social lives. These friends have been a blessing to my social circles, with their willingness and openness to engage with some of the toughest yet most important issues faced by students. 

How can bad listeners become good ones? By developing mindsets of intellectual humility. By adopting this mindset, we acknowledge an inescapable truth: that there are limits to our own knowledge, and that there is infinite room for us to grow and learn from others. 

Once students connect keener listening to deeper learning, our wide-eyed, natural curiosity will take over. We will begin to have more fulfilling discussions with those who disagree with us. We will establish deeper connections will lean in closer to hear professors during lectures. We will be encouraged to grow as students and blossom as individuals in civil society.

College administrators and professors can help, too. They can prepare students for the college environment by adopting curricula and new student programs that encourage the growth of intellectual humility or provide extracurricular instruction about what better listening looks like. 

On my own campus, students have taken matters into their own hands, creating the Cogwell student group, which provides active listening training to other peer student groups. In round-table discussions, Cogwell instructors have an open conversation with peers about communication and its impacts on mental health and relationships. Practicing good listening is not an all-encompassing cure to personal or social ills, but for many of my beleaguered peers, I believe it would create a more healthy, open culture of expression on campus.

Louis Galarowicz is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania and a FIRE summer intern.