Social Justice

If we want students to think for themselves, let them.

Last week, a group of Ivy League scholars published an open letter urging college bound students to "Think for Yourself."

Unfortunately for most students, thinking for oneself is really difficult because most students, especially the ones who manage to get into the Ivy League, have spent their academic years doing the opposite of thinking for themselves--they have allowed themselves to be shaped by others, seeking to perform perfectly as charged by adults. They have been rewarded for neither questioning the dominant narratives in society nor questioning authority.

The letter, however, seems to focus more on the debate over whether schools should be safe spaces for all, or if people with oppressive agendas (e.g., promoting racism, fascism, patriarchy) should be shut down in order to maintain that safe space. Or as The Atlantic puts it, should schools focus on "seeking truth" or "advancing social justice."

Contrary to what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues, we do not need to make binary tradeoffs between the two. As the professors allude to, the truth is the antidote to bigotry. However, debate does not mean entertaining absurdity. Universities should not subject themselves to debates over the virtues of slavery anymore than they should subject themselves to debates over a flat earth theory.

Truth seekers do not fear debate. In fact, they venture into territory where most people refuse to go because it is uncomfortable, and without easy answers. They look backward to learn from the past, but look forward to build a better future. They stand in stark opposition to those who see an earlier era as the ideal, where women, people of color, or LGBTQ folk "knew their place."

Those students who have been convinced to stay in line, follow a prescribed path, and to repeat what their teachers (or parents, preachers, or politicians) laid out as truth are the ones most likely to fall for bigoted ideologies that actively prevent truth from bubbling up in favor of maintaining a status quo that benefits the privileged.

It is the students who have not been beaten down with curriculum, standards, demands for conformity, and prescribed academic tracks that are the most likely to question. And for those who were able to engage in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences in a self-directed manner, they are the most likely to question in an intelligent manner that will inoculate them from embracing simplistic (and often bigoted) explanations for the challenges we face in society.

So students, please, question everything. Challenge yourselves, each other, and your professors. Professors, challenge your students. Take on controversial topics. And parents, do not merely hope that your children will think for themselves once they get into college. Educate yourself on the benefits of self-directed learning, and investigate learning environments such as Abrome, as well as unschooling.

We do not have to subject students to oppressive ideologies that have no place in an intellectual setting in order for students to think for themselves. We simply need to allow them to think for themselves.