Ivy League profs: Some thoughts and advice for our students and all students

Sixteen college professors signed a letter urging students to respect everyone’s right to think and speak for themselves.

August 29, 2017

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!

Paul Bloom
Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology
Yale University

Nicholas Christakis
Sol Goldman Family Professor of Social and Natural Science
Yale University

Carlos Eire
T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies
Yale University

Maria E. Garlock
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Co-Director of the Program in Architecture and Engineering
Princeton University

David Gelernter
Professor of Computer Science
Yale University

Robert P. George
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions
Princeton University

Mary Ann Glendon
Learned Hand Professor of Law
Harvard University

Joshua Katz
Cotsen Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Classics
Princeton University

Thomas P. Kelly
Professor of Philosophy
Princeton University

Jon Levenson
Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies
Harvard University

John B. Londregan
Professor of Politics and International Affairs
Princeton University

Michael A. Reynolds
Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies
Princeton University

Jacqueline C. Rivers
Lecturer in Sociology and African and African-American Studies
Harvard University

Noël Valis
Professor of Spanish
Yale University

Tyler VanderWeele
Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and Director of the Program on Integrative Knowledge and Human Flourishing
Harvard University

Adrian Vermeule
Ralph S. Tyler, Jr. Professor of Constitutional Law
Harvard University

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About the Author: CFACT Ed

  • Otter

    That was 5 days ago. How many of them still have their jobs?

    • J T

      The point is well-taken. And the academic year has begun…

  • Derek

    There is nothing in that letter that should cause any problem for those who signed it. To argue against it would reveal that person to be a bigot.

    • Joe

      The problem is, the “real bigots” don’t give a damn. “They” are correct and “They” know it. End of argument.

      • J T

        The “end” came after the previous post.

  • ONTIME

    I think the letter from Oxford summed up the situation about the suppression of free speech, it’s well worth reading…I regret deeply that any of our learning institutions are so shallow and sensitive that they cannot overcome speech they cannot abide with fact, evidence and commonsense and avoid insulting the 1st amendment…..Shouting others down bodily threats, destruction of property and open conflict with peace keeping authority, the covering of faces and the riot mentality all suggest fascism, communism and brown shirt nazis, this is disgusting and a insult to America and all it’s institutions that allow the American Dream to flourish…..Intolerance will not be tolerated, hate will be quelled and law and order will prevail in a civil society….MAGA……….America for Americans…..

  • J T

    A simple message, told with few words. How can they offer these truths with out being fired? Perhaps, with a sort of pre-emptive lesson, before the false lessons start. I say, continue with this simple message. The liars always need a bazillion words to obfuscate, but truth requires very few…