In the United States hundreds of thousands of students are entering college for the first time in the next few weeks. To prepare them for the battles which lie ahead 15 eminent professors from Harvard, Yale and Princeton have written an open letter to these freshmen. Its message can be summarised in three bold words: “Think for yourself”.
In recent years, the pressure to conform to a dominant mindset — no platforming, transgender right, historical revisionism — has become so powerful that independent thinking is being penalised at many universities – including world-class institutions like Harvard, Yale and Princeton. The signatories to the letter warn students:
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.
This is not a problem confined to Ivy League campuses in the United States. It extends as well to corporate environments where conformity to the latest fad is demanded as a condition of promotion – as James Damore, an engineer at Google discovered when he questioned the company’s gender diversity program and was immediately fired.
So the advice in the open letter offers encouragement to everyone battling the tyranny of groupthink:
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.
As the professors point out, thinking for yourself does not mean living in isolation, hermetically sealed against contamination by alien ideas, but engaging with others to discover the truth.
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.
In today’s intellectual climate, defending the very existence of truth is often condemned as a mask for bigotry. But the professors insist that debate and questioning of the status quo are the best defences against mindless prejudice:
Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the word “bigot” is a person “who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.” The only people who need fear open-minded inquiry and robust debate are the actual bigots, including those on campuses or in the broader society who seek to protect the hegemony of their opinions by claiming that to question those opinions is itself bigotry.
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.
The letter was an initiative of Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, a brainchild of Robert P. George, one of the leading conservative legal scholars in the US.
George and his colleagues are not alone in their concern. Even “liberal” scholars fret about the lack of intellectual diversity in American universities. One “centrist” academic has even founded a group to push back against scholarly conformity. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the NYU-Stern School of Business, started Heterodox Academy to combat “political orthodoxy”. He says that
Nowadays there are no conservatives or libertarians in most academic departments in the humanities and social sciences. The academy has been so focused on attaining diversity by race and gender (which are valuable) that it has created a hostile climate for people who think differently.
As Haidt points out, when everyone supports the same politics and prejudices, scholarly integrity suffers. “Can a social science that lacks viewpoint diversity produce reliable findings?” he asks. “When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.”
It has always been hard to follow the advice of one of Harvard’s most famous alumni, Henry David Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” In today’s universities, it seems particularly difficult to resist the pressure to conform. As the open letter observes, “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.”
But what use is an education that teaches you to be a sheep, even if you land a job in Google?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet