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Most college students won’t discuss controversial topics for fear of peer backlash: survey

Most college students say they’re reluctant to discuss controversial topics in classroom settings, and they cite fear of peer retribution as the biggest reason why, according to a new survey.

Specifically, 58 percent of college students surveyed reported they shy away from hot-button topics inside the classroom, according to a recently released survey from Heterodox Academy.

The survey highlighted the fact that two-thirds of college students who keep quiet say it is primarily because of a fear of other students’ reactions.

Nicole Barbaro, director of communications for the academy and co-author of the report, said self-censorship is one of the most troubling findings of the survey.

“College is a place where students should learn critical thinking, how to construct their own views, and be able to practice communicating ideas with others,” she said in an email interview with The College Fix.

Heterodox Academy is a nonpartisan organization that describes itself as a group “committed to improving research and education by promoting the ideals of viewpoint diversity, open inquiry, and constructive disagreement.”

The Campus Expression Survey questioned in November 1,565 full-time students aged 18 to 24 at four-year universities. The group released its results March 23.

The survey also found that while 61 percent of students said their university frequently encourages consideration of a broad range of views, about the same number of students said that their campus climate prevents discussion of beliefs that other students may find offensive.

The results point to the fact that while universities encourage open discussion, students still fear backlash from their peers, the academy said in a news release.

Self-identified Republicans were the most reluctant to discuss controversial topics, while self-identified Democrats report being the least reluctant, the survey found.

“This shows what a shadow threat the issue of free expression is,” said John Tomasi, president of Heterodox Academy, in a news release.

Barbaro said she is unsurprised by the results.

“We have been seeing this high level of student reluctance to share their views in class and on campus for years,” she told The Fix.

But there were some bright spots to the survey results, the academy said, noting the percentage of students reluctant to discuss controversial topics has slightly decreased by two percent since 2021’s high of 60 percent.

“It’s encouraging to see signs of hope that the trend of self-censorship may be reversing on campus. But we still have work to do,” Barbaro said in a news release.

The academy developed some practical steps campus leaders can take to encourage expression to set “the tone for engagement norms across campus and in the classrooms.”

They suggest administrators and professors should prioritize opportunities for students to interact and cultivate norms of open inquiry and constructive disagreement in classrooms.

“By being explicit about the value of viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement for learning, students’ fears of expression can be replaced with confidence,” said Michael Regnier, executive director of the Heterodox Academy.

MORE: Conservative students unlikely to voice opinions

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Mary Mobley is a student at The Master's University majoring in political studies with an emphasis in constitutional law.