The Campus Courage Crisis

By Kyle Sebastian Vitale

Courage has become a superlative attribute in our age. Healthcare workers courageously work on the frontlines of Covid-19. Ukrainian President Zelensky exhibits courage against foes of democracy. These figures risk their personal security for the benefit of others and higher ideals. Higher education too, is newly interested in courage as a centering ideal. That’s good: We need more courage on campus these days.

What we have instead is a mistaken notion of courage. Take recent events at Yale Law School. Student protesters disrupted a bipartisan Federalist Society panel about religious freedoms, featuring the American Humanist Association and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Students quietly joined the event before ambushing it, heckling the speakers Monica Miller and Kristen Waggoner over ADF’s and the Federalist Society’s conservative positions. As the video conveys, students acted under an assumed banner of courageous support for those identifying as transsexual.

Undoubtedly, this took nerve, and I am slow to fault students who intended to act in good faith. Yet is this courage? Most will agree that courage, while complex to define, carries a quality of personal sacrifice. Clemson University’s Cynthia Pury speaking with the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center helpfully qualifies courage as something requiring “a noble goal, personal risk and choice.” That seems to get at our common notion of courage as something that takes both strength and sacrifice.

The Yale event featured little personal risk. Students hid behind signs and cries that freedom of speech justified their actions. Missing was the vulnerability of actual discussion, and with it, the risk of one’s views undergoing scrutiny. This was about abolishing discomfiting views, not the small sacrifice of listening to others. Those who disagreed with speakers Miller or Waggoner but were prepared to listen, showed far more courage.

Similarly disruptive events occur across college campuses, and they look the same: group settings, much shouting and swift departure by those protesting. Student hecklers rarely face up to the reality that they may not be entirely right or that their “enemy” may not be entirely wrong, both of which involve personal risk to one’s ideals. This is umbrage, but it is not courage. How do we counter this instinct?

By amplifying better models of courage. Emma Camp is one. Camp wrote recently about the culture of self-censorship among students at the University of Virginia. Students like Camp feel the relentless pressure to tow the ideological line, lest they find themselves on the outs with peers. Her essay is a model of courage, energized by higher ideals, open about her beliefs and honest about her mistakes. She knew the piece would receive a mixed response, and boy was she right, yet she met criticism with poise and interest.

If there are more students like Emma Camp out there, campus culture certainly doesn’t help us find them. A recent survey from Heterodox Academy reveals that 63% of students feel their campus climate prevents them from expressing their beliefs on various subjects, for fear of criticism or retribution from classmates and teachers. Courage’s unique ingredient—personal risk—is uniquely threatened on campus.

In response, higher education must create campuses rooted in trust and courage—trust that we are willing to hear each other out and courage to risk our assumptions and ideas. Students are certainly not blameless here, giving in to groupthink and pressuring one another into empty activism. Yet, they are also starved for models of courageous engagement with the uncomfortable. Numerous cases record campus administrators caving to students who demand more than they offer. Faculty too are often too quick to apologize when students perceive a racist or sexist comment, rather than respond with their intentions and pedagogical beliefs.

Courage is not screaming against the things that indispose us. Courage is sharing beliefs with confidence, authenticity and flexibility. It improves campus culture by contributing more perspectives and welcoming more views in the search for truth. It also requires much: faculty building classrooms that cultivate sincere interpersonal interest, administrators modeling charitableness and tenacity, and students choosing to listen and risk putting their beliefs under the microscope.

That same Heterodox Academy survey and other available research reveal that college students are more willing to share their beliefs in high-quality interactions with people they know. Our students are quietly ready to be more courageous on campus. Let’s support the ideals and the designs that help them get there.

Kyle Sebastian Vitale @kylesebvitale is director of programs at Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan collaborative of more than 5,300 professors, educators, campus administrators, staff and students committed to enhancing the quality of research and education by promoting viewpoint diversity in higher education. He writes about higher education and has taught literature and pedagogy for over a decade at Yale University, the University of New Haven, the University of Delaware and Temple University.




One Response to “The Campus Courage Crisis”

  1. Michael Berkowitz

    “Courage is sharing beliefs with confidence, authenticity and flexibility.”

    Howzat? In our context courage is saying what you believe needs to be said even though it could not-only get you fired but make you unemployable.


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