International students, online learning, and freedom of expression

November 25, 2020
Jonathan Zimmerman, Pam Grossman, Amy Gadsden, and Jacques deLisle

Academic freedom is often taken for granted by American students who freely debate and share opinions in class. In a virtual forum last week that focused on international students and academic freedom at American universities, Penn GSE’s Jonathan Zimmerman, a preeminent education historian, reflected on a time when an international student hesitated to share opinions in his class because they were afraid of who might be listening. For Zimmerman, it was a wake-up call for how international students might perceive the classroom environment differently.

Concerns around digital academic discussion and freedom of speech assume new urgency amidst a worldwide pandemic that has required many college students to study from their homes around the globe. Penn GSE Dean Pam Grossman moderated the forum, which brought together Zimmerman, Penn Law Professor Jacques deLisle, and Associate Vice Provost for Global Initiatives at Penn Global Amy Gadsden to talk about how to balance academic freedoms with very real concerns about how freedom of speech might impact safety.

Zimmerman, tying current concerns to a historical and systemic context, reiterated how U.S.-educated Chinese students have been used as objects of suspicion in China as well as the U.S. since the late 1800s. Is there something deeper that the U.S. can do to help these students? he asked.

“What has me scared is the passivity and cynicism surrounding this question,” Zimmerman said. “The ‘it is what it is’ statement that drives historians nuts. ‘It is what it is’ but it wasn’t, and I hope someday it won’t be.”

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