New books from Penn GSE professors focus on free speech on campus

February 15, 2023
A montage of alternating book covers. The two new books in the montage were written by Penn GSE professors Sigal Ben-Porath and Jonathan Zimmerman.

Educators nationwide, from elementary schools to college campuses, are grappling with the boundaries of free speech and censorship. Amid the discourse, two prominent free-speech experts and Penn GSE professors share ideas to promote dialogue and diversity in learning with new books from the University of Chicago Press.

Sigal Ben-Porath and Jonathan Zimmerman have each published new books that explore the current “cancel culture” phenomenon and how it impinges on students’ learning, American culture, and constructive discourse.

In "Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy,” Ben-Porath, a Penn GSE professor of literacy, culture and international studies, asserts that school communities need to rebuild trust and promote healthy dialogue.

She says that today’s “cancel culture” encourages individuals with opposing views to shame and silence those who disagree with them. Educators, school leaders, students, and parents can help banish this harmful behavior by encouraging honest, respectful conversations.

“Many people are looking for tools they can use in their contexts to ensure a productive and inclusive conversation. They want to know how to avoid silencing people, including those with uncommon views and experiences, and how to ensure that a conversation remains productive even after a controversial view was voiced,” Ben-Porath adds.

On a recent episode of the SpeechMatters podcast, produced by the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, Ben-Porath gave a simple but powerful example, one she said helps foster dialogue and build trust.

When someone in a class presents an opinion that another student or faculty disagrees with, rather than arguing, Ben-Porath suggests they say: “Tell me more,” and ask for sources and examples of the position, as well as their goal.

“‘Tell me more’ is usually a more productive way to structure the exchange than aiming to cancel the person or being mad about the differences between the two of you,” she says.

Ben-Porath also suggests that educators devote a few minutes each class to perspectives or questions that are not part of the lesson plan or syllabus. That creates a protected space and encourages students to share diverse ideas.

Zimmerman's latest book is an updated edition of his 2002 book “Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools.” The new volume includes an expanded section reflecting on how culture wars in education have erupted in the last two decades and impacted learning.

He believes that students should be involved in deciding what they study and discuss. And while education has always come under scrutiny, Zimmerman says this moment is different because school wars have taken on a national cast and quality unlike ever before.

“Book bans. Critical race theory. Don't Say Gay. AP African American Studies. Wherever you look, our schools are under assault,” Zimmerman explains. “Our moment presents an enormous opportunity to put fundamental questions about America to our young people and to let them decide what they want the country to be. But I'm not sure we have enough consensus — or courage — to let that happen.”

An education historian, Zimmerman was recently ranked No. 14 in the most recent 2023 Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings by Education Week. And his previous book, “Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn,” illustrated by renowned editorial cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, was honored with a gold prize in the 34th annual IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards.

For his next book, Zimmerman plans to write a history of schools and universities during epidemics and pandemics. He said the book may be his last and is inspired by his wife, Susan Coffin, an attending physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and one of the leaders of Philadelphia's response to the COVID-19 crisis.



“Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy” by Sigal R. Ben-Porath Published January 2023 by University of Chicago Press


“Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Second Edition)” by Jonathan Zimmerman Published August 2022 by University of Chicago Press



  • On Thursday, Feb. 16, Ben-Porath will join Penn GSE Dean Pam Grossman to discuss polarization and how school leaders are affected by changing political norms. She also recently visited Harvard University, McGill University, Stanford University and Franklin & Marshall College to promote the book and has also scheduled additional upcoming appearances.
  • Zimmerman plans to attend the inaugural National Higher Education Teaching Conference in June to discuss his book. In September, he will travel to Virije University in Amsterdam and give the keynote address at an international conference on the culture wars.