America’s higher education system used to be the bastion of free speech and free expression, and a group of prominent Ivy League professors are requesting the newest crop of college students bring back that mantle to our country’s college campuses.
In a letter penned by professors from Yale, Princeton and Harvard, the cohort of scholars urges that freshmen across the country “think for themselves” and speak out even amid the risk of being chastised on campus for their beliefs.
The scholars readily admit voicing unique opinions in today’s campus climate is difficult, noting their suggestion “can be a challenge.”
From the letter:
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.
The letter tells students to question the “dominant ideas” and advises them to adopt arguments grounded in fact and research, not just the most popular opinions:
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.
The letter’s signatories include Princeton’s Robert George, a prominent conservative scholar, and Yale’s Nicholas Christakis, a scholar who faced an angry mob of Yale students in 2015 after his wife wrote a pro-free speech email.