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What We’re Reading August 2020

This month’s readings include several that touch on the issue of cancel culture. Professors and a student find themselves facing backlash for views expressed online, a professor asks whether we should cancel Aristotle, and a Cato Institute survey finds that many—and especially college and grad-school graduates—worry about career consequences of their political views. This month’s readings include a survey by the RAND Corporation of public high school social studies teachers about teaching civics. Although students need civics knowledge to contextualize current issues and controversies once in college, the survey finds that many high school teachers do not view knowledge of our history and free markets as essential.

Read Next

Campus Happenings

Faculty Letter
Members of the Princeton University Faculty | Open Letter | July 4, 2020

Faculty members wrote to Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber with a list of 48 demands to address “anti-Black racism” and “racism of any stripe.” Among the demands that has received the most comment: “Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” One faculty member argues that such a committee is needed to oversee “research conduct so that there is clear systemic redress for misconduct against communities of color,” another argues that such a committee “would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal.” Others have criticized this demand as a violation of academic freedom (for example here and here).

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Updated Statement on Social Media Post by UMW Lecturer
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee | News Release | July 4, 2020

An online petition with over 170,000 signatures is calling for the firing of a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee lecturer who served as a colonel in the Wisconsin Air National Guard, for a comment she made in a private Facebook group that “sexual harassment is the price of admission” to the military. In response, the University issued a statement that a lecturer “made comments via her personal Facebook page that are beyond thoughtless. They are repugnant and terribly at odds with UWM’s values. … There are legal reasons why UWM cannot fire Ms. Schoeller for her social media postings, as some have demanded. This type of speech is protected by the First Amendment, as UWM cannot regulate the private speech of its employees.”

Penn Prof. Faces Backlash After Disagreeing with National Book Circle BLM Statement
Tori Sousa | Daily Pennsylvanian | July 6, 2020

Professor Carlin Romano, board member of the National Book Critics Circle and professor at the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication, is facing backlash for critiquing NBCC’s statement on racial justice, writing in an email message that the statement is “unfair to the white publishers that have been working to elevate Black writers, and Black voices, for years.” In response, “fifteen of NBCC’s 24 board members have since resigned due to a ‘wide range of reasons,’ and NBCC has received nearly 20 emails calling for Romano’s removal, according to the organization’s website” and a petition demands Romano’s dismissal from the University of Pennsylvania.

Community Members, GUSA Condemn Article Written by Georgetown Student
Jemima Denham and Liana Hardy | The Hoya | July 11, 2020

The Georgetown University Student Senate passed a resolution condemning a junior for writings on his blog. The Senate condemned posts critical of Black Lives Matter as “racist and ignorant rhetoric” and, according to another source, the Senate also condemned since-deleted posts about depression as including “harmful language.” The resolution encourages the campus community to file bias reports against the author. The vote was not unanimous, although the margin by which it passed is unclear because votes were made by voice. It is reported that only three senators argued against the resolution.

State and Federal Policies

Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski
Case Summary | SCOTUS Blog | July 2020

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in a case brought by a student against Georgia Gwinnett College over its free speech zone regulations. After the school changed that policy, allegedly to avoid litigation, the district court dismissed the case as moot and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. At issue is whether the case should be moot, since the student claims damages from the school. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education offers further explanation, as well as its amicus curiae brief in the case, here.

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

The Chilling Effect of an Attack on a Scholar
Conor Friedersdorf | The Atlantic | July 20, 2020

Harvard University professor Steven Pinker was the target of an open letter demanding his removal as a distinguished fellow from the Linguistics Society of America over several past tweets, including one that shared data suggesting racial bias was not the primary reason for disproportionate confrontations between Black Americans and police. Pinker tweeted a short response and listed on his website others’ responses, including Friedersdorf’s: “The chilling effect that [letter] creates, especially among linguists without tenure, wouldn’t be cause for alarm if the speech in question were obviously and egregiously improper; if it consisted, for example, of racial slurs or open bigotry. But the hundreds of academics who targeted Pinker were not merely reaffirming sensible, widely agreed upon taboos. They were trying to radically narrow the bounds of acceptable speech and inquiry.”

Should We Cancel Aristotle?
Agnes Callard | New York Times | July 21, 2020

“Aristotle not only did not believe in the conception of intrinsic human dignity that grounds our modern commitment to human rights, he has a philosophy that cannot be squared with it …Yet I would defend Aristotle, and his place on philosophy syllabuses, by pointing to the benefits of engaging with him. …If someone puts forward views that directly contradict your moral sensibilities, how can you avoid hostility? The answer is to take him literally—which is to say, read his words purely as vehicles for the contents of his beliefs. …When I read [Aristotle], I see [his] view of the world—and that’s all. I do not read an evil intent or ulterior motive behind his words; I do not interpret them as a mark of his bad character, or as attempting to convey a dangerous message that I might need to combat or silence in order to protect the vulnerable.”

62% of Americans Say They Have Political Views They Are Afraid to Share
Emily Ekins | Cato Institute | July 22, 2020

“A new Cato national survey finds that self-censorship is on the rise in the United States. Nearly two-thirds—62%—of Americans say the political climate these days prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive. The share of Americans who self‐ censor has risen several points since 2017 when 58% of Americans agreed with this statement. These fears cross partisan lines. Majorities of Democrats (52%), independents (59%) and Republicans (77%) all agree they have political opinions they are afraid to share.” The study also finds that “31% of liberals, 30% of moderates and 34% of conservatives are worried their political views could get them fired or harm their career trajectory.” Notably, the higher their level of education, the more worried respondents were about their political views upending their career.

Social Studies Teachers’ Perspectives on Key Civic Outcomes in 2010 and 2020: Civic Development in the Era of Truth Decay
Laura S. Hamilton, Julia H. Kaufman, and Lynn Hu | RAND Corporation | August 3, 2020

This report offers insight into nearly a decade’s worth of change in public high school civics, a discipline that “[helps] support readiness for college, career, and community life.” Key findings include: “In both 2010 and 2019, majorities of high school social studies teachers rated numerous aspects of civic development as absolutely essential; knowledge of facts was the lowest-rated item” and that the percentage of teachers who “very closely” align with the belief that “Students must learn to critically evaluate information for credibility and bias” as “a crucial citizenship skill” decreased by 21% over the last decade. In 2019, only 43% of teachers surveyed agreed it was “absolutely essential” that students “be knowledgeable about periods such as the American Founding, the Civil War, and the Cold War” and “understand economic principles such as supply and demand and the role of market incentives.”

Big Read

Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All
Suzanne Nossel | Harper Collins | July 28, 2020

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel has written a handbook for individuals about how to defend and follow free speech principles and engage fruitfully in discussion of controversial issues. She provides four sets of principles: for speaking, for listening, for debating free speech questions, and for formulating or revising speech-related policies. Nossel addresses those who argue that free speech protections come only at the cost of an environment that is safe, diverse, and inclusive, asserting: “the quest for a diverse, inclusive society is in fact fortified by the defense of free speech, and the case for free speech is made more credible and more persuasive when it incorporates a defense of equality.”