Critical Thinking, or the “Expectation of Confirmation”?

With so many more Americans going to college than in the past, you would think that anti-intellectualism would be a distant, rapidly fading memory. But you’d be mistaken argue Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow, editors of a sharp new book The State of the American Mind.

“Instead of acquiring a richer and fuller knowledge of U.S. history and civics, American students and grown-ups display astounding ignorance of them, and their blindness is matched by their indifference to the problem,” write Bauerlein and Bellow. Increasingly, Americans shrug at the idea of basic liberties but “accept restrictions on speech, freedom of association, rights to privacy, and religious conscience.”

The book they have put together shows the depth of these worrisome trends.

Each of the sixteen essays included is worthwhile. I am going to focus in particular on one that dovetails especially with the work of the Pope Center—Greg Lukianoff’s “How Colleges Create the ‘Expectation of Confirmation.’”

Lukianoff is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that stands up for free speech on campus no matter who the speaker is or what the content of the message might be. In his essay, he laments the fact that many college students have become so bold as to demand that school administrators silence speakers with whom they disagree and “protect” them from arguments contrary to their beliefs.

Or it would be more accurate to say, “assume they disagree with” because they refuse to allow the individuals to speak. Therefore, they are spared having to actually think of logical responses after listening to the speaker’s arguments. So is everyone else on campus, of course. The “heckler’s veto” thus affects those would like to hear the speaker’s message just as much as those who think they’re entitled to silence perceived enemies.

Lukianoff presents quite a few instances, starting with one at Brown University, where Ray Kelly, former New York City police commissioner, had been scheduled to give a talk. A group of students managed to so disrupt the event that Kelly finally gave up and left the building. Afterward, a student who had been at the center of the disgraceful, anti-intellectual protest bragged, “They decided not to cancel the lecture, so we decided to cancel it for them.”

The intellectual climate on many campuses has been in decline for years, but seems to be speeding up. Just a few years ago, the big new trend was the demand that lectures, books and everything else on campus that might possibly offend anyone be scrubbed of ideas or images that might “trigger” a sensitive student. Lukianoff senses that we are moving further into this swamp as the “right not to be offended” morphs into “the right to have your views confirmed and not challenged.”

Although it occurred too recently to make it into the book, the Laura Kipnis furor is evidence for Lukianoff’s point. When a liberal feminist professor at Northwestern wrote an essay that took issue with the popular trope that college campuses are dangerous places for women and need more federal oversight, she was blasted by women students who couldn’t stand Professor Kipnis’ disagreement with their cherished beliefs. 

The students did more than just wring their hands and write about their hurt feelings. They filed an official complaint against Kipnis with Northwestern’s “Title IX coordinator” claiming that her writings had violated their rights. Thus began an amazing, Kafka-esque series of proceedings for Kipnis, which she details here.

My point is not that Title IX invites abuse, although it certainly does. My point is that we now have college students who think that it is proper to bring down the weight of federal regulation on the head of a professor simply for saying something that clashed with a view they expected to be reinforced.  

It’s especially troubling that the students went after a member of the faculty. In the past, you would have expected students to at least show a bit of deference towards scholarly thought. “Maybe we should consider the possibility that Professor X has a point here….” But now we find a new breed of know-it-all students who eagerly use the machinery of federal regulation to wreak vengeance on a professor for writing something they find disagreeable. 

Lukianoff’s analysis of the reasons for this deplorable state of affairs centers on the way Americans increasingly “cluster” ideologically. That is, they tend to hear only opinions that coincide with theirs and, disturbingly, that phenomenon becomes more apparent as educational levels rise. 

Citing Diana Mutz’s book Hearing the Other Side, Lukianoff notes that “people with a high school education or less are the most likely to engage in discussions along lines of political and philosophical disagreement, while those with higher levels of education are less likely.”

I suspect that observation is generally correct, but the effect is much more pronounced among leftist students. Students who have at least some sympathy for private property, free enterprise, and individual responsibility are very apt to encounter people, especially in the education system, who will argue against their beliefs. (“Denounce” would often be a more accurate word than “argue,” however.) 

As Professor Michael Munger observed in this Pope Center piece last year, it is leftist students who are likely to get rewarded just for stating the “correct” beliefs. Conservative and libertarian students don’t develop that expectation of having their opinions validated and their egos stroked because they can hardly avoid intellectual combat. There is a huge ideological asymmetry here.

Moreover, leftist students themselves tend to cluster in courses where ideology is the primary focus and professors are prone to reinforcing their already formed views about the array of “social justice” topics. 

As a means of countering this noxious trend of students who think that the point of college is to reinforce their existing beliefs, Lukianoff suggests that part of freshman orientation be devoted to “instruction in productive academic engagement.” That is, tell students “we fight offensive speech not with censorship but with contrary words.”

That is a superb idea. Orientations should be used for the salutary academic purpose of explaining to students what intellectual arguments are and how they’re conducted. An assignment might be to read that part of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty that deals with the importance of free speech and debate.

Schools should be just as interested in making sure that students know the rules of academic dispute as that they know the rules, say, about drinking on campus.  

We hear again and again from college leaders that they want students to learn “critical thinking skills,” but evidence keeps mounting that the exact opposite is happening—that many students are learning how to make life miserable for those who dare to disagree with them.  Leaders who really care about the intellectual development of the students who come to their schools ought to pay attention to the alarm Greg Lukianoff is sounding.