Education, self-censorship, and the freedom to discuss difficult ideas

There has been public debate about how difficult and societally polarized topics, such as ideologies, rights, and certain historical events and processes, can be discussed in a constructive way – or should the discussion be suppressed to protect the participants from emotional discomfort? This is especially important in higher education which should be characterized by freedom of research, and even more in our field, teacher education, which has to prepare future teachers to discuss difficult themes. In English-speaking countries, the attempts to limit academic discussion have sometimes even turned violent, and this has resulted in academic self-censorship. Concerns of similar development have started to arise in Northern Europe, as well, and now is the time to bring up the difficult topic under multidisciplinary discussion. We propose that universities should be safe spaces – but not safe from ideas but safe for students and scholars to develop and challenge their thinking and to try out new ideas.

Our goal is to study to what extent these global trends have affected the culture of dialogue in Finnish higher education. We will investigate the potential conflicts between the purposes of research across disciplines, educational and curricular goals, and the aspirations to avoid discussing topics that might trigger negative emotional reactions. Also at the University of Helsinki there have been incidents in which the approach of some scholars has been questioned because of dealing with topics perceived as painful. Our project aims at promoting meaningful academic dialogue while respecting the intellectual and disciplinary aims of education.

Associate Professor Janne Säntti, MA Jenni Marjokorpi, PhD Mikko Puustinen, Professor Liisa Tainio, Professor Jukka Rantala