These days, when you think about the state of free speech on college campuses, the image that usually comes to mind is that of Melissa Click, the former University of Missouri assistant professor of communications. During the campus riots there back in 2015, Click attained infamy when the tried to order up “some muscle” to dispatch a student who was shooting video of the protests. Thus we had the irony of a person who taught a subject rooted in the protections offered by the First Amendment threatening violence against another person exercising those very same rights. That this irony was seemingly lost on Professor Click also speaks volumes about the state of critical thinking in the American academy–and it’s no wonder. When you create an environment consumed with vaguely-defined notions of social justice in which even the most innocuous questions about the prevailing vIowa are met with screams of “Burn the heretic!” it’s a bit difficult to emerge with anything resembling an original thought.
Under such circumstances, ignorance actually becomes a virtue–or at the very least, a much safer option–but how is that supposed to square with the purpose of a college education? The short answer is that it can’t, and amazingly enough there are some educators who are starting to recognize that. Moreover, they’ve actually decided to try and do something about it–and at great personal risk, given that they’re operating from hostile territory.
In an open letter called “Some Thoughts and Advice for Our Students and All Students,” a group of professors from Yale, Harvard and Princeton admonish incoming freshman to avoid the dogmas of political correctness and instead engage in something truly radical:
Think for yourself.
Now, that might sound easy. But you will find—as you may have discovered already in high school—that thinking for yourself can be a challenge. It always demands self-discipline and these days can require courage.
In today’s climate, it’s all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture. The danger any student—or faculty member—faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink.
At many colleges and universities what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of public opinion” does more than merely discourage students from dissenting from prevailing views on moral, political, and other types of questions. It leads them to suppose that dominant views are so obviously correct that only a bigot or a crank could question them.
Since no one wants to be, or be thought of as, a bigot or a crank, the easy, lazy way to proceed is simply by falling into line with campus orthodoxies.
Don’t do that. Think for yourself.
It’s difficult to overstate just how big a departure this is from the monolithic cult of campus thinking, particularly in the Ivy League. Yale, as you’ll recall, is home to the same student body that hounded one instructor out of a job for suggesting that people might want to lighten up about cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes. Harvard, meanwhile, has banned members of fraternities, sororities and other single-sex clubs from serving in any university leadership role, and is mulling over banning those organizations from campus altogether. Independent thought in places like that is practically a crime. And yet…
Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable. It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions—including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.
The love of truth and the desire to attain it should motivate you to think for yourself. The central point of a college education is to seek truth and to learn the skills and acquire the virtues necessary to be a lifelong truth-seeker. Open-mindedness, critical thinking, and debate are essential to discovering the truth. Moreover, they are our best antidotes to bigotry.
Not conforming to fashionable opinion is also one of the best antidotes to tyranny–which the authors fully understand. People who never question what they are told to believe are easy pickings for those who would do our thinking for us. But then the progressive left knows that already. It’s why they’ve turned institutions of higher learning into institutions of indoctrination. It’s also why critical thinking is so damned important.
So don’t be tyrannized by public opinion. Don’t get trapped in an echo chamber. Whether you in the end reject or embrace a view, make sure you decide where you stand by critically assessing the arguments for the competing positions.
Think for yourself.
Good luck to you in college!
Good luck indeed, because anyone who follows this advice is going to need it. The established academic order has been building itself up for decades, and is not going to take kindly to resistance. With the media and the popular culture in lockstep with the left, it will only make things harder. As long as there are brave teachers who are willing to take a public stand, though, and as long as we have at least a few students who still want to stick it to the man, we have hope.
And hope is always the best place to start.