Ailts: How can we learn to think for ourselves?

Ivy League professors are urging their students to think for themselves; how can we go about achieving this goal?

Ellen Ailts

Though the 2017-18 school year has only just begun, it’s obvious that the tense, heated political atmosphere of 2017 thus far is going nowhere and will continue to bubble up on college campuses. The Trump administration has vowed to rescind DACA, putting our fellow students and friends at risk of having essential rights revoked. Now is an interesting time to be a college student, just beginning to figure it all out, with our political sphere as chaotic and frustrating as it currently is. I would imagine and hope that some of our formative years falling under the Trump administration will provide us all with a healthy distrust of authority, especially of the political variety, for the rest of our lives. 

Our professors and leaders certainly recognize the unusual and troubled circumstances we find ourselves in; just before Labor Day, professors and scholars from Princeton, Harvard and Yale sent out a letter to incoming freshmen, advising them to think for themselves and to not necessarily conform to prevailing campus opinion. 

Though nonconformity and autonomous thought are worthwhile goals, we should recognize that it is often the educational system itself that encourages us to conform. While I can only speak for public education, it seems that to be a student is to be obedient. We’ve spent most of our lives in a classroom, and generally, how good of a student you’re considered to be is contingent upon how well you follow instructions. Though there is some room for freedom of thought — much more so in a university setting — for most of our lives, there was essentially a narrow range of “right answers.” Especially before higher education, school is often too exhausting and punishing for young people to maintain their spark of curiosity — it’s much easier to do what the instructor asks, and as efficiently as possible, so that you might get a break at some point during the day. 

During college, we should begin to unlearn all of this. The aforementioned letter says that, “[the] love of truth and the desire to attain it should motivate you to think for [yourself,]” yet this desire to attain truth needs to be predicated by shedding the weight of the prescribed K-12 mindset. Unlearning conformity and protecting intrinsic curiosity is a pathway to becoming an engaged citizen and making education fun for ourselves — it doesn’t necessarily have to be a grind; it doesn’t always have to feel like an obligation. Especially if you enjoy your major, you have the opportunity to relearn how to think and to reconsider how you approach education and being a lifelong student. 

We should meet our classes with a level of skepticism, in order to teach ourselves the important lesson of always questioning the information we’re being fed. “Thinking for [yourself]” begins with enjoying the process of thinking and figuring out, and maintaining curiosity is essential. In addition to this, learning how to consume the news is key, and this can only come with practice and a discerning eye. When it comes to staying up-to-date on current events and maintaining engagement as an adult, no one is there to grade you or to tell you their version of right from wrong—you simply have to try and fail and learn and grow.