We wish to offer some thoughts and advice to students who are or will soon be attending colleges and universities in these times of strife and polarization. We particularly address those whose beliefs are out of step with the dominant opinion on campus, while noting that sooner or later, if you think for yourself, you will contravene the reigning orthodoxy.
When you deviate from socially prescribed opinion, it is likely that some highly ideologically motivated people who are outraged by your refusal to conform will try to discredit you by the simple expedient of calling you nasty names. The labels have changed repeatedly since the days of Cotton Mather, but the intolerance motivating the labeling has altered little from what it was in Salem at the time of the witch trials. Keep your dignity; stand your ground; don't let a postmodern puritan bully you by threatening to paste a bar code onto your forehead.
You are also likely, in just about any contemporary college or university, to encounter some ideologically tinged double standards. Do not be quiet about them. Be civil, always, and assertive and persistent as circumstances require. Find out who is in charge of the relevant aspect of campus life; point out the double standard and respectfully ask for it to be eliminated. Hold your college or university to its own professed commitments to fairness, inclusion, and non-indoctrination. You have powerful tools at hand: the force of argument and the power of reason. Neither produces results instantaneously in all cases, but both will work provided you maintain your composure, remain persistently polite, and never stop pushing back.
It is possible that you yourself might be subjected to discriminatory grading or a biased administrative decision. Again, do not be quiet about it. Stand up for your rights, knowing that in doing so you are securing the rights of your peers as well. You will need to learn your college or university's procedures for appealing grading decisions or, if it becomes necessary, filing grievances for discriminatory treatment. You should also look for sympathetic faculty members who may be willing to advise and support you.
In standing strong for your rights and the rights of others to think for yourselves and make up your own minds, it is important to avoid becoming an ideologue, or seeing ideological conflict in every encounter or conversation. You came to college to be challenged, and the critical exchange of ideas is not victimization, it is a privilege. Insist on your right to free speech, but remember that other people have that right too. They do you no wrong in challenging and criticizing your beliefs—even your deepest, most cherished, identity-forming beliefs—just as you do them no harm in challenging their beliefs. Quite the contrary. We do one another a service by intelligently challenging one another's convictions.
Remember, as an American college or university student you are one of the luckiest—most privileged—people on planet earth. Do not fall into the trap of thinking of yourself as a victim or building an identity for yourself around that idea. You can avoid the trap while strongly standing up for your right to fair and equal treatment and boldly working for reform where there are double standards needing to be rectified.
Remember this, too: Thinking is not something that can be outsourced. You have to do it for yourself. Do not let your professors tell you what to think. Do not let popular opinion on campus dictate your convictions. When you encounter groupthink on campus, probe and question. What is to be said on the other side? Are there thinkers and writers who doubt or deny the “consensus”? If so, read and carefully consider what they have to say. Make up your own mind.
Oh, and lest we forget, thinking for yourself and making up your own mind almost always entails a huge amount of fun. People rarely mention this, but it is a fundamental truth. It may cost you friends—but only false friends. True friends will want you to think for yourself, and will not mind you disagreeing with them. You are likely to find that in thinking for yourself and speaking your mind, you make some genuine friends for life, including some with whom you will permanently—and fruitfully—disagree.
Department of Economics
Professor of Applied Physics
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department
Robert P. George
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence
Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions
Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy
Edward J. Groth III
Professor of Physics, Emeritus
Allen C. Guelzo
Senior Research Scholar, Council of the Humanities
Director, Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship, James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions
Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics, Emeritus
Professor of Near Eastern Studies
Joshua T. Katz
Cotsen Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Classics
Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics
John B. Londregan
Professor of Politics and of Public and International Affairs
Michael A. Reynolds
Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies
Director, Program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies
James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Princeton Environmental Institute, Emeritus
John L. Weinberg Professor of Economics and Business Policy, Emeritus
Lewis Bernard Professor of Natural Sciences
Professor of Chemistry and the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials
Robert K. Prud'homme
Professor and Founding Director of the Program in Engineering Biology
Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering
Photo by eflon via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
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