The 3 reasons why students don’t want to share political views in class

Professor says many students simply have no idea how to disagree constructively. Some fear reprisal.
By: | September 15, 2021
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When it comes to talking politics or kicking the tires on a major social issue, the majority of college students say they’d prefer not to when in classrooms.

According to a new report from higher education ranking and planning platform Intelligent.com, 52% of students they surveyed said they always or often keep political opinions to themselves. Many do so out of fear of reprisal from other students and professors in terms of respect, grades and even safety.

In the poll that was conducted in August, Intelligent got an even cross-section of responses from 500 conservative, 500 liberal and 500 moderate students. The big takeaway: instead of engaging in robust dialogues about politics and sharing their views, students are instead remaining silent because they believe it might lead to ridicule or lower grades. Self-censorship was slightly more common among conservative-leaning students and men.

One professor said the fallout from the most recent election cycle and the widening political divide have created barriers in learning, particularly during courses where those discussions are important.

“Many students simply have no idea how to disagree constructively, or even if constructive disagreement is possible,” James Patterson, Associate Professor of Politics at Ave Maria University, a largely conservative Catholic institution in Florida, said in the report. “Students seem to believe that disagreement is taking sides. Hence, they can only imagine that the potential consequences will be, at minimum, to alienate some of their fellow students. At worst, they might end up fodder for some kind of social media-driven ostracization. It is vital to show students that there are alternatives, namely greater understanding of the issue and respect for differing opinions on how to resolve it.”

Fewer than 30% of all respondents from the three groups said they “rarely or never” mind sharing their views on social or political issues. For conservatives, it was less than 25%.

Members within the three groups all responded differently when asked about what they feared most in discussing their viewpoints:

  • Conservatives: Losing the respect of professors and classmates topped the list, followed closely by grades being affected.
  • Liberals: They did not believe their relationships with professors would be impacted but worried about increasing the divide with fellow students. In addition, they feared their physical safety might be at risk.
  • Moderates: Losing classmates’ respect, being ridiculed and having grades be impacted.

“Nearly all students are very astute at ‘reading the room,’ ” Patterson said. “They can size up whether they are in a majority position or not. At progressive institutions, conservatives are on guard. At conservative ones, progressives are on guard. Moderates usually have lower intensity and are less likely to participate. Hence, the prevailing view is the only one discussed.”

That leaves departments and instructors in compromising positions. Even where institutions might lean one way or another—or where professors might have polarizing political views—should discussions about politics and social issues be more open to divergent ideas in classrooms?

“I think the more educators allow for spaces that welcome a diversity of perspectives and then provide tools for how to consider and value multiple perspectives as part of our education, the more our students will more openly share their questions, ideas, and beliefs,” said John Lupinacci, Associate Professor of Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education at Washington State University. “I think it’s also peer-driven, especially in smaller social groups where it might be truly punishing or dangerous for a student to differ from the group. It wouldn’t surprise me if cancel culture has become a real threat to students having space to learn by making mistakes or talking through diverse assumptions and beliefs they hold.”

Two other interesting notes: The majority of conservatives (68%) said they likely would take a class taught by a professor that held opposing views, while moderates and liberals (59%) were open to the idea but a bit more hesitant. Also, being online doesn’t necessarily mean more open discussions. The majority of all three groups said they were not likely to share political thoughts even in remote spaces.