One month ago, sixteen Ivy League professors released a letter that urged incoming freshmen to "think for yourself." In the following weeks, the letter garnered national attention from news outlets ranging from The Atlantic to Fox News.
For conservatives, it was a representation of how college campuses have become so incredibly liberal that their snowflake students must be reminded how to perform a basic human function. To liberals, it was a Trojan horse that could allow hatred to enter an otherwise utopian environment.
Both sides have missed the mark; the letter shouldn't be a political football. It addresses a common problem in academia, where students quickly reject brash propositions based solely on their preconceived notions of them rather than actually listening to their logic and conclusions. I encourage all students to heed the letter's advice and challenge themselves to explore unpopular ideas while in college.
False labeling is a problem in academia. Often, there are experts in very specific fields with low public profiles who hold radical ideas that upend popular beliefs. Absolutist outsider opponents rarely understand the full extent of their arguments but fight them nonetheless. When these scholars come to campuses, students immediately reject their uncomfortable conclusions — before even listening to their ideas — and say that they uphold racism, sexism, or some other –ism. Other students then jump on the bandwagon to avoid being called a bigot. This creates an echo chamber as campuses lose out on hearing valuable ideas that could alter students' world views.
Take Professor KC Johnson. He's coming to Princeton on Tuesday. Professor Johnson is known for his criticism of the 2007 Duke lacrosse rape case and colleges' violations of the American liberal tradition in their quest to punish sexual assault. Students have protested his campus lectures. But, as Johnson wrote on his blog, many of the protestors were unaware of the concrete facts surrounding the issue. That hasn't stopped opponents from portraying him as a “rape apologist.”
Most students probably haven't heard of Johnson. As a result of false labelling, many will judge him based on the opinion of a few students who either don't fully understand his arguments or blindly oppose him to advance their own political agendas. During Johnson’s lecture at Ohio University, the anti-rape group “FuckRapeCulture” protested him and live-tweeted their comments, most of which contained ad hominem attacks such as, “I wonder if KC picked up his bowtie at Male Oppressors Rus” and, “This is what an asshole looks like” accompanied by a picture of Johnson.
These kinds of attacks can lead to disinvitations at subsequent campuses, thereby depriving other students of the opportunity to hear his controversial — yet well argued — opinions. Even if one doesn't accept Johnson's ideas, it's invaluable to hear them in order to bolster the strength of one's own position and gain authority in conversations by logically rejecting them. Students have the freedom to falsely label scholars whose ideas they dislike, but academia would be better off without that.
This phenomenon isn't limited to the humanities either. Look at geology. People are usually taught that the dinosaurs were killed by a meteorite impact. The "Impact Hypothesis" gained acceptance in the 1980s in part because co-discoverer Luis Alvarez — a Nobel Prize-winning physicist — bullied geologists who opposed him, calling paleontologists "not very good scientists" and "stamp collectors."
Although being called a "stamp collector" isn't as harsh as being falsely labelled a racist, the effect was the same. No one wanted to be ridiculed by a famous Nobel Prize winner, so the opposition went quiet, thereby roadblocking new ideas for decades. Princeton researchers have since found evidence to support the hypothesis that volcanic activity in India, not a meteorite, may have killed the dinosaurs.
At the beginning of each year, Outdoor Action encourages freshmen to, "choose to be challenged." It means that students should actively seek out difficult situations that push them outside of their comfort zone.
Now, I'm asking that all students choose to challenge themselves in the upcoming academic year. A liberal arts education is meant to expose students to bold new ideas. Take advantage of it. Liberals should actively seek out conservative lectures and vice versa. The Catholic ought to listen to an atheist while the capitalist converses with the Marxist.
College should be a time to explore controversial ideas free from societal pressures. Relish the opportunity to consider inconvenient truths.
But don't take my word for it. Think for yourself.
Liam O’Connor is a sophomore from Wyoming, Del. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.