Journal of Educational Controversy


Saturday, March 17, 2018

An Interview with University of Pennsylvania's Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman


An Interview with University of Pennsylvania's 

Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman

           On December 1st, 2017, Western Washington University hosted Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman of the University of Pennsylvania following the recent release of his co-authored book, The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools. Zimmerman’s presentation, entitled ‘Censorship and Free Speech on College Campuses in the Age of Trump,’ unsurprisingly engendered lively debate, encouraging Western’s student population to take an introspective look at free speech on campus in light of the current political climate.

           Dr. Zimmerman’s talk addressed the limits and possibilities of free speech on college campuses in the United States during an age of much political contention. Further, his talk included his perspective on the role of the educator in affecting and encouraging free speech in students, as well as his ideas regarding a higher educational institution’s responsibility in maintaining open discussion, or “free speech zones,” on campus.

          The Journal of Educational Controversy was fortunate enough to sit down for an interview with Zimmerman prior to his talk. Zimmerman discussed with us his positions on the issues surrounding free speech and educational institutions, which are explored further in his book.

JEC: What is your talk about today?

Zimmerman: My talk today is about free speech with an accent on the question of political exchange and dialogue in our universities and outside of them.

JEC: The description of your talk includes the question of when, if ever, free speech should be limited. How would you answer this question?

Zimmerman: The last book I wrote was a book about teaching controversial issues in American schools very closely related to the discussion today. One of the reasons we have free speech is actually to promote and to engender dialogue across our differences but it's extremely hard to do so for a variety of different reasons and what I tried to do was talk about ways to do that, reasons to do that and constraints on it, because in an incredibly polarized time in our history it's difficult for our public school teachers to engage in these discussions.

JEC: How do you think K-12 educators might discuss controversial issues with their students?

Zimmerman: I think that there are a couple of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ in this realm, and I think the most important thing is at the simplest level to engage our controversial public questions. For example, after the shooting in Las Vegas, I read that lots of schools were offering counseling and mental health services which is utterly appropriate, especially for kids that may have been exposed to gun violence. What we didn’t see is schools debating the questions around who should own a gun and what we should do to prevent events like this and I think that’s really characteristic of one of the huge problems right now in the country. Obviously that's a heavily contested question, but it’s so contested, we're afraid to discuss it in our schools. So, at the simplest level, I want to encourage teachers to address questions like that. It's perfectly fine and sometimes necessary to offer people counseling, but that's not the job of the teacher. The job of the teacher is to help people gain both the skills and the knowledge to come to conclusions about difficult public questions. The most important thing is to do that, and the most important thing to avoid is not the issue itself, which you should be talking about. It's to avoid imposing your own opinion on the question. Like everything, that's easier said than done. You're a subjective human being and you're a political being and your views will at some level be manifest to your students. How do you avoid imposing your views on your students? It strikes me that your primary job is to get the students to enquire and ask questions, not to impose your answers.

JEC: Does that differ in higher education?

Zimmerman: I would say that, to me, your goal and your purpose are the same at the university level. I frankly think it's easier in the sense that there's a lot more freedom. In many places you have academic freedom as a function of being a university faculty member that often high school teachers don't have. You also don’t have the kind of parental and citizen pressure that teachers often face. That's not to say it’s easy. But I would say that when I was a K-12 teacher I had a lot less freedom and a lot more constraints on my behavior than I have as a university professor.

JEC: Do you think a lot of those constraints came from greater parental influence in K-12 education?

Zimmerman: Yes. Let's remember that unlike universities, our K-12 schools are locally organized. They're governed by local school boards, and primarily by local taxes, so that creates a very different set of constituents and a very different set of constraints.

JEC: Do you feel that there is a line between which issues can be addressed in college vs. K-12?

Zimmerman: No. I do think that by virtue of what a university is there is at least an opportunity to address issues in a more complex way, but I would say frankly the more important distinction for me is not between universities and the K-12 system; at large, it’s between sixteen year olds and six year olds. I think that’s where the interesting and complicated differences are because those are developmental differences, which I don't think hold the same kind of power if you're comparing high school and college. Clearly a sixteen year old can and should be debating the question of gun control and gun violence. I'm not sure a six year old should be. A six year old just doesn’t have the same life experience and also cognitive capacity to debate those kinds of questions as a sixteen year old does.

JEC: How do universities respond to ideas rejected by scholars?

Zimmerman: If you're talking about something like climate change denial, it strikes me that people at universities have responded in appropriate ways by saying look, that's not science. You have a right to believe it in the same way that you have a right to believe anything, but you don't have a right to see that view privileged in schools or university classrooms. However, I would say in the same breath, I think there's a danger of the people you're calling experts exaggerating their expert knowledge. To go back to the climate change example, there is absolutely an expert consensus that human beings have contributed to warming the earth, but sometimes you'll hear people point to that consensus and then say that there's a consensus that we need to remain in the Paris Accord about climate change and they're not the same. There's a difference between a scientific consensus and a political consensus. I think there's a danger amongst we experts in exaggerating what we actually know with certainty. I am absolutely 100% certain that human beings have contributed to warming the earth. I'm not certain and never will be certain to the same degree about the wisdom of being in the Paris Accord. I do support it, but not with the same certainty. I can't. There are too many variables. It’s a political question, not a scientific one, and I believe those are different kinds of questions.

JEC: How do you define a controversial issue?

Zimmerman: We try to do that in our book, and what we say a controversial issue is is an issue about which the most informed people disagree. To go back to the climate change question, is there a controversy about whether human beings have warmed the earth? There isn't. Not one that I'd want to see debated in classrooms any more than there's a controversy about whether I share DNA with primates. I understand there are some people that don't think that I do, but they're wrong and I don’t think a classroom at a university or a public school is a place to debate something that is not debatable. But to go back to climate change, what to do about the fact that human beings are warming the earth is a controversy, and there are as many different opinions about that as there are people. What regulations should be put in place by which countries? Who should absorb most of the costs? How should they be enforced? Those are enormously complicated and controversial questions and the reason I'm calling them that is that informed people have very different takes on them. They do not have very different takes on whether people have warmed the earth because people have.

JEC: How do you think campuses should handle threats to free speech?

Zimmerman: I think it depends on the nature of the threat, and I think it's important to emphasize, as I'm going to [in the talk] later today, that free speech is doing quite fine on campuses. There's a danger of excessive language in describing this problem. I’ve been trying to find language where we can acknowledge the problem without exaggerating it. I want to emphasize that there are constraints and threats to free speech, but there is no crisis to free speech. To me those are different words, and I do think the words matter. But insofar as there are constraints in free speech, I think that, to me, it all starts with the faculty, the teachers of the university, modeling ways to talk across our differences. I think the reason there are threats to free speech is that many of us have lost the ability to do that. If I don't like what you’re saying, instead of saying, well, tell me more about that, or, how did you come to that view? I say that is foreboden, that is violent, that is taboo, shut up. So as far as free speech goes, I think the major cause of that has to do with our lost ability to converse across our differences, and by corollary, the most important solution, although that’s not the right word. Maybe ‘remedy’ or ‘response’ is to be much more aware and much more vigilant about trying to teach people how to converse across their differences. If they don’t know how, they will almost inevitably muzzle each other and themselves.

Dr. Zimmerman’s book, The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools, co-authored with Emily Robertson, is now available from the University of Chicago Press.

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