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"They said what!?"
A PSA about student speech
Did you hear about those students at Oberlin? Or was it Harvard? Kids these days!!
Every day there’s a new story about some outlandish, bizarre, or embarrassing thing individual college students somewhere have said. People seem to really enjoy reading and sharing such stories, based on how often I see them mentioned in traditional and social media.
However, things that individual college students say – no matter how outlandish – are almost never newsworthy. Stories about those students are mostly uninteresting and irrelevant. Serious journalists who write those stories should reconsider their career and life choices.
Consider this a public-service announcement: the fact that you can find a small number of students who say odd things doesn’t have any broader implications at all.
Here are three reasons not to pay attention to stories about the speech of individual students, no matter how annoying they may be to you:
College students are numerous. The US alone has almost 20 million of them. In any human sample that large, there will likely be people of all kinds. The fact that you can find a small number of odd or annoying individuals in such a large sample is entirely unremarkable.
College students are diverse. In terms of intellectual ability, some submit publishable work and a few are laying the foundation for Nobel-worthy discoveries, yet some can’t string together a sentence. In a diverse sample like that, there will be many individuals that deviate radically from the norm.
College students are learning. That’s why they’re in college to begin with. Professors like myself know that students come in with all sorts of jumbled and contradictory beliefs. Our job is to help students think them through and confront them with evidence in a systematic and rigorous way.
Things that students say can be interesting, e.g., if they are part of a broader trend or if they are backed by a movement, represent a political party, are bankrolled by a political organization, or the like. But stories about trends, movements, parties, and organizations aren’t about individual students – at least, they’re not just about individual students. (Stories about anti-semitism on college campuses are both interesting and important, for example, precisely because they are an expression of a broader societal trend.)
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And remember that you can’t establish there’s a trend among college students by quoting some tiny subset of them. You need a large, representative sample. In stories about students saying outlandish things, the sample is never representative. And even one hundred such college students won’t allow you to draw any conclusions about the 20 million. 100 college students is still a mere .0005 percent of them!
The problem with stories about individual students isn’t that they aren’t true. Some students really are odd and annoying, like that guy in philosophy class from the classic Onion story. The problem is that such stories have no news value. They can damage careers and destroy lives, though, as individual students can be doxxed and harmed in all sorts of ways.
When the story is just about individual college students, it’s best to leave them alone.