The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 40-year decline in the tolerance of college students, graphed

Middlebury College students turn their backs to author Charles Murray during his lecture in Middlebury, Vt., on March 2. (Lisa Rathke/Associated Press)

Last week, the author Charles Murray was shouted down when he attempted to give an invited talk at Middlebury College. Allison Stanger, the political science professor who, at the request of students, participated in Murray’s visit, was assaulted while escorting him to a car afterward. Rumors that the protesters were coming to the restaurant where Murray, Stanger and others were to have dinner led them to leave town altogether.

Despite the condemnation of the protest, including by some at Middlebury itself, the incident is already being held up as yet another current example of intolerance on college campuses. However, a systematic look at the survey data on political tolerance shows a much longer trend at work. Forty years ago, young college students were the most tolerant of controversial speech. That is no longer the case.

Since the 1970s, the General Social Survey (GSS) has been measuring people’s willingness to allow controversial people — racists, atheists, communists — to speak in their community. Of course, a response to a survey interviewer may not signal how someone would act in real life. We cannot assume, for example, that people opposed to these speakers would actually shout them down. But the trends over time are notable nonetheless.

One GSS question asks: “Consider a person who believes that Blacks are genetically inferior. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community claiming that Blacks are inferior, should he be allowed to speak, or not?” This is, of course, exactly what Murray’s critics accuse him of believing, based on his book “The Bell Curve.”

The graph below divides respondents into four groups based on whether they are ages 18 to 25 or 26 and older and whether they have at least some education beyond high school (college vs. non-college). There is no way to know exactly what, if any, specific postsecondary education respondents have had, but this at least helps isolate those attending or recently graduated from a college or university. The trends below have been “smoothed” to help separate signal from noise.

Typically, we would expect tolerance to be most prevalent among the young and better-educated. As of 1976, when this question was first asked, that was exactly the case. Roughly 84 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds who had some college education supported allowing this person to speak. This was higher than older people who had attended college (78 percent) as well as 18-to-25-year-olds who had not attended college (68 percent).

Over time, however, young people in college became less willing to let a racist speak in their community. The trend among this group is particularly steep, more so than among any of the other groups. By 2014, young people in college are no more tolerant than older people who have not attended college. Or to put it differently, later generations of college students are less tolerant than earlier generations.

A similar pattern — although not as dramatic — emerges when asked about a communist:

And when asked about an atheist:

In the research that initially identified this pattern, political scientist Dennis Chong hypothesized that the shift derived from changes in the culture of higher education beginning in the 1980s. For one, Chong found that this pattern was strongest among those who identified as politically liberal. He also found that this pattern could be due to an embrace of multicultural values that are tied to stronger condemnations of hate speech.

At the same time, however, we should not overstate the implications of these trends. Majorities of Americans tolerate controversial speakers, period. And, as Chong notes, those with at least some college education are almost always more tolerant — casting doubt on the notion that colleges and universities are creating, as he put it, “a general climate of intolerance.”

Still, there may be a connection between the trends documented here and a reaction like that which Charles Murray experienced. Scholars of tolerance have long noted that allowing speech that you find objectionable is a tough test for many Americans. That is still true today.