By Kitty Testa
Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions released an open letter to students heading to college this fall with a very simple message that will surprise some and outrage others: Think for yourself.
The missive warns new students about the “the tyranny of public opinion” and encourages students to question “dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable.”
Having viewed numerous videos of recent protests, one thing that Antifa and their sympathizers repeat often is “this is not a debate.” There are numerous examples of professors being targeted by social justice warriors who insist that faculty acquiesce to outlandish demands, including the recent fiasco at Evergreen State College in Washington. Several professors have been chased from their scholarly posts after displeasing students with ideas that challenge their worldview, such as Erika Christakis of Yale whose 2015 email questioning Halloween costume guidelines at the university resulted in hysterical backlash and ultimately her departure from the university.
Many of us have watched a deterioration of critical thinking and freedom of expression on college campuses from afar. For those who have a front row seat, they can only either give in to ever growing demands for conformity—or fight back.
The letter is signed by fifteen scholars from Harvard, Yale and Princeton, including the husband of Erika Christakis, Nicholas Christakis, a professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale.
Surely, students who wish to think for themselves will quickly be labeled bigots by social justice warriors, and this is addressed by the scholars with little mercy.
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.
It’s refreshing to see this kind of advice—old wisdom, really—being offered to students who will face enormous pressure to conform their thinking to a tyrannical crowd. Let’s hope this brief statement of encouragement stirs a little bravery in them. Let’s also hope these professors don’t find themselves in the unemployment line for daring to remember what a university education is intended to be.