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Think for yourself...

Some Thoughts and Advice for Our Students and All Students <and all citizens>

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

Elizabeth Bogan Senior Lecturer in Economics Princeton 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

Branko Glišić Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Princeton University

William Happer Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics, Emeritus Princeton University

Martha Himmelfarb Professor of Religion Princeton University

Robert Hollander Professor of European Literature and French and Italian, Emeritus Princeton University

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

Thomas P. Kelly Professor of Philosophy Princeton University

Sergiu Klainerman Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics Princeton University

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

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

Margarita Mooney Visiting Associate Professor of Sociology Princeton University

Uwe Reinhardt James Madison Professor of Political Economy and Public 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

Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Princeton University

Harvey S. Rosen John L. Weinberg Professor of Economics and Business Policy Princeton University

Marta Tienda Maurice P. During Professor in Demographic Studies and Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School; and Director, Program of Latino Studies Princeton 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

Keith E. Whittington William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics Princeton University

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