The following letter written by professors from Yale, Harvard, and Princeton was first published on 8/29/17 by our friends at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. With permission, I have re-printed it here. I wish I had the opportunity to read this letter when I was a freshman. Perhaps you too will find it as insightful as I did. If you’re interested, James Freeman (Yale ’91) at the WSJ had valuable commentary on the letter.
– Pranam Dey, Editor-in-Chief of The Beacon
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!
Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology
Senior Lecturer in Economics
Sol Goldman Family Professor of Social and Natural Science
T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies
Maria E. Garlock
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Co-Director of the Program in Architecture and Engineering
Professor of Computer Science
Robert P. George
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions
Mary Ann Glendon
Learned Hand Professor of Law
Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics, Emeritus
Professor of European Literature and French and Italian, Emeritus
Cotsen Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Classics
Thomas P. Kelly
Professor of Philosophy
Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics
Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies
John B. Londregan
Professor of Politics and International Affairs
James Madison Professor of Political Economy and Public Affairs
Michael A. Reynolds
Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies
Jacqueline C. Rivers
Lecturer in Sociology and African and African-American Studies
Maurice P. During Professor in Demographic Studies and Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School; and Director, Program of Latino Studies
Professor of Spanish
Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and Director of the Program on Integrative Knowledge and Human Flourishing
Ralph S. Tyler, Jr. Professor of Constitutional Law
Keith E. Whittington
William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics