On “thinking for yourself”

To my fellow students:

This post is going to be in response to a letter titled “Some Thoughts and Advice for Our Students and All Students” written by professors at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. You can read the full letter here

“Think for yourself.”

The professors who wrote this letter to you and I have all the best intentions. They are hoping that we become students of character and curiosity who are not afraid to take a stand for what is true, good, and beautiful, even if what is right is not the easiest choice.

From the letter:
“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.”

As the esteemed professors state, this often is not as easy as it may sound. The attitude of “majority rules” is common throughout high schools and colleges, and those in positions of authority are often not accepting of ideas that are contradictory to their own. It requires effort and time on our part to dissect the arguments and truly form an opinion.

As I read this letter for the first time, I wholeheartedly agreed with the message that the college professors are communicating. It was thrilling to hear these words of encouragement designed to empower me to think critically and question the world around me, even if it would be a difficult path to walk.

However, as I continued to ponder over the short letter and reread its contents, I realized something: if I agreed with exactly what the professors were saying in their letter without understanding the counter arguments and why I agreed with it, I would be contradicting myself and not truly embodying the objectives that the writers of this letter had in mind.

This quote is the last paragraph of the letter:
“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.”

To the other students who are reading this letter or my thoughts on it, we should be careful to ensure that we understand WHY we must think for ourselves and the potential reasons why this argument might be wrong BEFORE we agree with it entirely. It is far too easy to fail to challenge something that employs effective rhetorical techniques, utilizes a weighty authority, and encourages us to be fearless.

The best way to understand why we must think for ourselves is to think about what would happen if we failed to think for ourselves and agreed with those around us if it was too difficult to challenge their ideas. ABC News did an experiment to see whether or not a person would challenge an idea opposed to their own if there were 5 people that disagreed with them. Although it was a simple task that involved comparing 3D shapes, participants repeatedly decided to agree with the group if everyone else had thought of a different answer than their own. One participant stated, “You know, five people are seeing it and I’m not. … I just went along with the answers.” Although he had originally written down the correct answers privately, a score of 90%, his score reduced to 10 % after agreeing with the people who were instructed to state the right answer.

If people are unwilling to even suggest a different idea for something as simple as a debate over whether one 3D shape resembles another, what are the consequences for bigger issues and more radical ideas? Examples like this one demonstrate that these college professors definitely appear to be discussing a valid and important point: we cannot agree with everything around us.

However, the quote from the participant who agreed with the ideas might have some truth to it: “You know, five people are seeing it and I’m not. … I just went along with the answers.” When we are challenging the ideas of others and trying to pursue truth, we need to caution ourselves against assuming that we are automatically “right” just because we do not agree with the majority. Sometimes, we really might be missing an important piece of an argument. If this is the case, then it is our responsibility to research and truly understand what we are arguing for when we stand up against the status quo.

So, “think for yourself,” but be careful to ensure that this includes understanding and supporting your argument before using this mantra as an excuse to challenge everyone and everything around you without reason.

“Some Thoughts and Advice for Our Students and All Students” – James Madison Program (Princeton University)

“Why Do People Follow the Crowd” – ABC News

Comments are closed