Opinion: The problem with campus ‘debate’

It is a skill, at times useful, not to be confused with knowledge.

We need to talk about campus “debate.” I put that term in quotes because it has become so tortured that the term’s actual meaning is hard to discern. But many people seem to link it closely to college learning, and this is a real problem.

In a recent New York Times piece, Emma Camp, a student at the University of Virginia, complains that she came to college seeking “classrooms full of energetic debate” where students could say “what we really think,” but instead found ideological conformity and “self-censorship.” There are lots of issues here to discuss (Self-censorship is a very important skill! State legislatures are actually banning universities from discussing racism!), but I want to focus on what “energetic debate” actually means.

There’s a great misperception in discussions about higher education that somehow college campuses are a site for robust debate between competing ideas and that this is the essence of university education.

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