On Tuesday, Feb. 3, Dr. April Kelly-Woessner, professor of political science and chair of the politics, philosophy and legal studies department, gave a presentation entitled “Forbidden Knowledge: Political Intolerance in American Higher Education” in the Susquehanna Room.
She explained that a sabbatical is a “journey,” and it begins to morph as you get into it. Because of this, the original description of the lecture differed from the content she actually presented because her hypothesis changed. She realized, after doing quite a lot of research and surveys based upon her original hypothesis, that student opposition to speech codes generates resentment toward those the speech codes are aimed to protect, and the data comes out flat. “Students did not react the way I thought they would,” Kelly-Woessner said. She did not let this have a negative impact upon her work, explaining that she often tells her students, “sometimes null findings are the most important” as they lead to “soul searching.” This soul searching led to her “a-ha moment,” as she put it, in which she realized students are a product of a different generation and as such, react differently than she did, accepting speech codes rather than being upset by them. This realization led to her study on political tolerance.
Kelly-Woessner explained that political tolerance is the “willingness to extend basic civil liberties and democratic rights to groups which one dislikes.” According to her, the importance of tolerance goes back before the founding of America and is, according to James Gibson, a prominent researcher in the field, “one of the most pressing problems in the world today.” Kelly-Woessner summarized a quote by John Stuart Mill: “We discover truth by exchanging ideas.” She said in doing so, bad ideas are weeded out and proven wrong, and this is the basis for academic freedom and the “marketplace of ideas.”
“Research indicates youth are more tolerant than older generations,” according to Kelly-Woessner, and because of this, she predicted that America will grow more tolerant with each generation. As most of the research suggests, this will be the case; she said it seems hard to believe that people would argue against it, but the New Left believe in the “Paradox of Tolerance,” which means that people should be intolerant and stamp out intolerance itself. Kelly-Woessner said examples of this tension are everywhere, giving several examples of this on college campuses in recent years. She claims that this is due to a change of perspective in the younger generation: the fear that ideas can be dangerous. Her research shows that anyone under the age of 40 shows a decline in tolerance. Even so, most research still points to youth being more tolerant, and Kelly-Woessner said younger people are more tolerant to some groups of people. She said her research shows youth “appear to be more tolerant of atheists and homosexuals,” but said they are also favorable toward these groups, and it is unclear whether this is an accurate example of tolerance. She found that younger people are also less tolerant of communists, militarists, racists and Muslims. “Why would young people dislike communists more than people alive during the Cold War?” Kelly-Woessner asked the room. According to her, they do not. Youth simply are less tolerant of their ideas being spoken about to a public audience such as college students.
Kelly-Woessner concludes the relationship between tolerance and age is curvilinear because the way in which bad ideas are rooted out has changed. She said that much of this intolerance is directed toward college professors due to the fear and mistrust of imposing their ideas upon impressionable minds. There is a decline in support of the idea that through the “marketplace of ideas” people are “capable of defeating bad ideas.”
Sophomore Sarah Fuller contributed her own ideas after the discussion. Fuller said, “Being tolerant of other people and willing to exchange ideas is so integral to the culture of acceptance and diversity that we’re trying to promote on a college campus.” According to Fuller, the ideas presented by Kelly-Woessner were “eye-opening.”