This past August, a group of professors from Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities published a statement advising students in the U.S. to keep an open mind and reject “the vice of conformism.” The signatories encapsulated their advice in three words: “Think for yourself.” The authors alluded to the 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who warned against “the tyranny of public opinion” which, the authors argue, not only discourages students from challenging popular views on morality and politics, but also leads them to assume these views are so correct that only a “bigot” or a naïve would question them.
When I first read this statement, I hoped it would rekindle debates on free speech and the mission of universities and colleges as institutions of democracy, and how they should respond in a period of unsettled times for higher education and the broader society supporting it. Instead, the debate devolved into squabbling over arcane details such as the signatories’ political affiliations and theorizing about their motivations, thereby missing an opportunity to deliberate about what role higher education should perform to fulfill this democratic mission.
This should come as no surprise, given the wave of scepticism that has swept across our southern neighbour. It appears that when distrust and resentment prevail, they do more than merely obscure our sense of justice – they tempt us to act in ways we would otherwise avoid. Regardless of where these professors’ moral compasses point, I believe that their think-for-yourself message is worthy of further contemplation, and perhaps Canadian students need a similar one.
Group thinking stifles innovation, Mill warned 158 years ago. He articulated this idea in his analysis of the transformations of the political conditions following the 1832 Great Reform Bill, which extended the right to vote in England. Mill warned about the complacency of these reforms, identifying a dynamic not widely understood at that time. He thought that the progress in limiting political oppression also brought a decline of individuality, which was, for Mill, the foundation of a healthy society. This is because elected governments support views of the majority, conferring thereby legitimacy on these views, which come to dominate the public space.
Mill observed there is an intuitive appeal to popular views, a state of affairs he attributes to the fallibility of human mind. He thought freedom of speech is the path to transcend this limitation, because it allows the testing of ideas through debate where the falsity or rightness of ideas is determined in reference to evidence. This is the kind of scientific thinking we accept today.
Thus, the great secret of free speech for Mill lies in its ability to bring us closer to truth, and societies where individuals enjoy this freedom tend to be more innovative because they are more likely to accrue true knowledge. But this intellectual vitality is weakened by the power of popular views which can cause individuals to avoid holding opposing opinions for fear of appearing amoral or ignorant, privileging instead unanimity over critical scrutiny of these views. Mill thought this cramps the development of society.
It is easy to dismiss this proposition as prophetic, and there is a grain of truth to that, given the fact it is embedded in the social and political realities of a particular time and place, but neither psychologists nor sociologists would quarrel over the essence of Mill’s notion. Behavioural scientists would tell you today that many of our attitudes are influenced by what we think those around us do and believe, even when those perceptions are not accurate. The underside to this desire is that it discourages risk-taking and experimenting with novel methods which in turn can breed new ideas and spark innovation. By so doing, this desire can restrict the creation of a pro-innovation culture.
But there is a dam we can build to protect us from dropping to such mediocrity. It is called the discipline of dissent, which breeds innovation. This requires the critical examination of arguments, including those cutting across ideological boundaries to attain larger views of problems and their alternative solutions. And its outcome is what every higher education institution hopes to nurture: critical thinking.
No pedagogical alchemy can inculcate students with this capacity to the degree we aspire, and this is a big challenge higher education institutions face today. Probably the first step toward this ideal is to instill in students a deep respect for the critical pursuit of truth, which entails self-discipline and courage – two ingredients the think-for-yourself statement urges students to consider if they wish to develop independent thinking, and therein lies the importance of this initiative.
This critical pursuit of truth is not a leftist matter, nor a rightist matter. It is a democracy matter, and it is incumbent upon anyone pursuing the path of academia to make the case for it with renewed vigour. For these reasons, I believe maybe students on our campuses need a similar think-for-yourself message. I will keep my fingers crossed for this to happen.
Edmund Adam is a PhD student of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. The role of universities in democratic societies is one of his research interests.