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Speaking Up on Campus Doesn’t Mean Shouting Down Others

By Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon and Dartmouth President-Elect Sian Beilock:

Seemingly every day, we hear another voice in the robust national conversation around freedom of expression on university campuses. But it isn’t what people are saying on campus that’s the problem. Rather it is self-censorship, what is being left unsaid, that is the true issue.

There’s no doubt that academic inquiry is under attack, from conservatives attempting to ban entire majors to progressives who want to restrict potentially upsetting content. We all lose when our learning spaces become subject to censorship, but it would be a mistake to assume that the biggest threat to academic freedom is political or even institutional. It is our own unwillingness to speak that has eroded our ability to seek deeper truth through the interchange of ideas — in academia and beyond. The fear of speaking up is driving discourse down. What speech will be left to save if no one is talking?

As college presidents — one who has led Dartmouth for a decade and the other who will take the helm this fall — we see no escape from the culture wars that continue to stoke deep division in nearly all corners of our society without learning how to speak up when others disagree. The only way to find common ground is by ensuring that we have the skills to engage in productive discourse and not letting ourselves or others be silenced. And the development of that skill set and that commitment for every American must begin with the education system.

For years higher education has allowed itself to become the epicenter of the debate on where the line should be drawn between academic freedom and inclusive learning environments, and for too long we chose to believe that “safe spaces” were working when what they were really doing was silencing. Colleges are where ideas are tested, and so it is our responsibility to cultivate “brave spaces” instead.

As humans, we don’t like wading into the unknown, and our shortcut-loving brains are wired to learn only when we’re pushed to confront unfamiliar information. One teaching approach designed to foster real-world learning involves creating desirable difficulty, which is the practice of tasking students with learning activities that are just beyond their comfort zone and has been shown to strengthen learning outcomes.

Read the rest of the article in The Boston Globe.