Modeling Condescension to Students


Yesterday the following statement signed by fifteen professors from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton universities appeared on the website of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton:

We are scholars and teachers at Princeton, Harvard, and Yale who have some thoughts to share and advice to offer students who are headed off to colleges around the country. Our advice can be distilled to three words:

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.

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.

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.

Think for yourself.

Good luck to you in college!

Well, I’m sure glad these esteemed scholars at such prestigious institutions have been courageous enough to step forward with this profound and edgy advice!  I guess they’re concerned that most faculty members at “lesser” institutions, and even many at their own, won’t teach this to our students.  Maybe they worry that we just encourage students to follow the crowd.  I guess we should all be thankful that they’ve reminded us of such a timeless, if banal, truth.  Who, after all, would disagree?

But enough about faculty.  It’s this message’s preachy condescension to students that is truly pathetic.  To be sure, higher education should be about developing independence of mind, but to assume that this can be accomplished via simplistic exhortation is ridiculous.  Anyone with any experience in the classroom knows that if you really want your students to think for themselves you don’t just urge them to do it.  You model it; you train them in critical methods; you apply clear logic to hard evidence; and, most of all, you challenge them by respectfully questioning their views — as well as by interrogating your own preconceptions.  I can’t vouch for today’s Ivy League students, but in over 40 years of teaching I found that my students all thought for themselves.   Well, at least they believed they did.  And that’s one reason why this simple call to “think for yourself” is so pointless.  Even the most conformist often claim their intellectual independence.  Decades ago the iconoclastic journalist I.F. Stone wrote disdainfully about “the herd of independent minds” in journalism who somehow “thinking for themselves” all arrived at the same officially sanctioned opinions. (The expression has been employed by others as well, originating in critic Harold Rosenberg‘s 1948 essay on the avant-garde bearing that title. See, for instance, this video of Noam Chomsky.)

Moreover, the statement is clearly disingenuous.  For can anyone doubt that the conformism it decries is a certain brand of conformism?  That this statement is directed at those who “conform” to “fashionable opinions” about racism and Black Lives Matter, about misogyny and abortion rights, about gay marriage and transgender bathroom rights, about “microaggressions” and “safe spaces,” about “antifa,” etc.?  In short, that it’s directed at those student protesters that right-wing critics demean as thuggish illiberal “snowflakes?”  I wonder if the authors would be as willing to urge students to think for themselves about the science of climate change, about Darwinian evolution, about the truth of the Holocaust?  Yes, education, especially higher education, is about developing independent critical thinking, but such thinking must always be informed by knowledge and expertise.  And higher education is also about providing those.  Truly independent minds are expert and knowledgeable enough to know what they don’t know and when they need to rely on the knowledge and wisdom of better-informed others to make up their minds.  It makes no more sense to begin a class on, say, Stalinism by asking an 18-year-old freshman “what do you think?” than it would be to pose such a question to a freshman about the theory of relativity and expect to get much more than garbled confusion in response.

But who am I to say?  I’ve never taught at Princeton, Yale, or Harvard.

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3 thoughts on “Modeling Condescension to Students

  1. Thank you, Hank, as usual! What a smug “statement,” indeed. One year I had three students, in three separate classrooms and on three separate assignments, assert in writing that the First Amendment “protects your right to freedom of speech as long as you don’t offend anybody.” This “statement” makes me think back to those papers.

  2. Whenever I hear someone exhort people to ‘think for themselves,’ I am reminded, for some reason, of two lines from Joni Mitchell’s “Raised on Robbery”: “He was drinking for diversion/He was thinking for himself.” A meaningless phrase, it is, preceded by a mind-numbing activity.

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