Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education

Ilana Redstone, John Villasenor

Research output: Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook


Colleges and universities in the United States play a profoundly important role in American society. Currently, that role is being hampered by a climate that constrains teaching, research, hiring, and overall discourse. There are three core beliefs that define this climate. First, any initiative framed as an antidote to historical societal ills is automatically deemed meritorious, and thus exempted from objective scrutiny of its potential effectiveness. However, to use a medical analogy, not all proposed cures for a disease are good cures. Second, all differences in group-level outcomes are assumed to be due entirely to discrimination, with little tolerance given to exploring the potential role of factors such as culture or preferences. Third, everything must be interpreted through the lens of identity. Non-identity-centered perspectives, regardless of how worthy they might be, are viewed as less legitimate or even illegitimate. All of these beliefs are well intentioned and have arisen in response to important historical and continuing injustices. However, they are enforced in uncompromising terms through the use of social media, which has gained an ascendant role in shaping the culture of American campuses. The result is a climate that forecloses entire lines of research, entire discussions, and entire ways of conducting classroom teaching. The book explains these three beliefs in detail and provides an extensive list of case studies illustrating how they are impacting education and knowledge creation—and increasingly the world beyond campus. The book also provides a detailed set of recommendations on ways to help foster an environment on American campuses that would be more tolerant of diverse perspectives and open inquiry. A note about Covid-19: While the production of this book was done in spring and summer of 2020, we completed the manuscript in 2019, well before the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered American college campuses in March 2020. To put it mildly, the dynamics of campus discourse are very different when dorms have been largely emptied and instruction has been moved to Zoom. Of course, at present we cannot know when students will be able to return to campus in significant numbers. That said, we are confident that our call for a culture of more open discourse in higher education will remain relevant both during the pandemic and after it has passed.
Original languageEnglish (US)
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages208
ISBN (Electronic)9780190078065
ISBN (Print)9780190078065
StatePublished - 2020


  • discourse
  • viewpoint diversity
  • academic freedom
  • free inquiry
  • censorship
  • Discourse
  • Censorship
  • Academic freedom
  • Free inquiry
  • Viewpoint diversity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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