Is There Really a “Wave” of Political Correctness on Campus

Professor Stephen Taylor reacts to recent claims that universities are being overrun with P.C:

I have been reading, mostly in passing, a number of pieces about an alleged new climate on college campuses in which students are raising significant complaints due to difficult or emotionally sensitive material. This is the whole “trigger warnings” debate as well as a hypothesis that liberal over-sensitivity has run amuck among the late teens and twenty-somethings who populate typical college classes…To be honest this all seems like a bunch of individual anecdotes that do not string together to convince me that that is some great chilling taking place across the higher education landscape. But, of course, I may one day be proven wrong.

This is my own attitude as well. To prove the hypothesis that P.C. is a widespread national phenomenon would require systematic national data, not anecdotes (A suspicious number of which are recycled — if this is happening everywhere, why does any commentator need to borrow an anecdote from someone else?). If I am shown systematic data supporting the hypothesis, I will believe it, but otherwise I remain dubious that such a wave exists, for the following reason:

I am a straight White male professor whose entire career focuses on upsetting things: Drug addiction, prison, racism, domestic violence, AIDS etc. I never issue trigger warnings in my writing and teaching, yet I have never had any student complain even mildly that the material I present is too upsetting.

Of course I am just one professor so my experience can’t be be taken as support for a generalized conclusion. But that is precisely what is happening with individual stories of suffering under P.C. speech codes. Most people who are not experiencing being shut down, criticized, excluded etc. are not going to write blogs or op-eds about their non-experiences, anymore than the nightly news will carry a story of all the airplanes that landed safely that day. Keep that selection bias in mind when interpreting anecdotes of PC horrors and also be wary of the human tendency to equate an anecdote’s vividness with its representativeness.

What we really know from the P.C. anecdotes that are being published is that at least some academics are feeling threatened and silenced. But we don’t know that this is happening any more now than at any other time in history, nor that it’s truly a national phenomenon rather than a feature of a subset of universities (Or maybe even a subset of schools within a subset of universities). So enough with the anecdotes and on to systematic surveys of faculty and students that will reveal whether we truly face a educational crisis or are just panicking over a few negative, unrepresentative experiences.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.