Advice for Students Entering College

| Topics: Civil Rights and Liberties, Philosophy, Religion

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This piece originally appeared in Mirror of Justice

As the new academic year begins, I have some advice for conservative and religiously observant students who are entering colleges and universities in which their beliefs will place them in the minority, and perhaps make them feel like “outsiders.”

You will encounter double standards. Don’t be quiet about them. Ask for them to be removed. If necessary, be assertive and persistent, though always respectful, relying on the force of argument and the power of reason. At Princeton, students and sympathetic faculty working together have had a fair amount of success over the years in getting rid of double standards, but we won’t stop until they are all gone.

You may experience prejudice, perhaps in grading, perhaps in other areas of your academic or social life on campus. If you do, try to find a friendly faculty member who can guide you and perhaps even advocate for you in addressing the injustice. Ask around to identify faculty members who have spoken out for freedom of speech and viewpoint diversity. (Go to the website of the Academic Freedom Alliance — www.academicfreedom.org — to see if any members of the alliance are on the faculty of your institution.) It’s easier for those of us on the faculty to make an issue of it than it is for you to try to do so alone. In any case, we can and — believe it or not — there are some of us who will support you and insist that you be treated fairly and that your right to equal, non-discriminatory treatment be honored.

Do not, however, confuse being challenged or criticized with being discriminated against or victimized. Insist, as we, your friends on the faculty, will insist, on your right to free speech, but remember that other people have that right, too. They can use it to challenge and criticize your beliefs — even your deepest, most cherished, identify-forming beliefs. They do you no harm in doing that, just as you do them no harm in challenging their progressive or secularist beliefs. In fact, we do each other a service in challenging each other’s convictions.

Remember: As a college or university student, you are one of the luckiest — most privileged — people on planet earth. Do not think of yourself as a victim. Do not build an identity for yourself around grievances, despite the double standards, and even if you experience some injustices. You can and should work to set things right without descending into grievance identitarianism.

Thinking is not something that can be outsourced. You have to do it for yourself. Don’t let your professors tell you what to think. Don’t let popular opinion on campus dictate your convictions. If a professor tries to indoctrinate you, resist. His or her job is to educate you. Indoctrination is the antithesis of education. If there is groupthink on campus, the response it should trigger in you is a desire to probe and question. “What is to be said on the other side? Are there thinkers and writers who doubt or deny the ‘consensus’?” If so, read and carefully consider what they have to say. Make up your own mind. Think for yourself.

Don’t be a bully and don’t let anyone bully you. If you reach a conclusion that defies the groupthink, don’t be afraid to speak your mind about it. (In other words, don’t censor yourself on a topic that you would otherwise speak about — that is, you would speak about if your opinion weren’t out of line with the groupthink.) And defend anyone and everyone else’s right to think for themselves and express their views, whether or not you share them. When someone comes under attack or is at risk of “cancellation” by the “outrage mob” for expressing an opinion, stand up in support of that person — again, whether you yourself happen to agree or not. By defending robust free speech for all, you are helping to uphold core values without which the university cannot pursue its mission as a truth-seeking institution. Be the kid on the playground who rushes to the defense of the kid who is being bullied.

Do business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse — a currency consisting of reasons, evidence, and arguments. Challenge your interlocutors to do business in the same currency. Indeed, demand it. If they don’t — if they resort to forms of manipulation or to tactics of intimidation — defy them and call them out. Don’t hesitate to be blunt in saying, “The name-calling and bullying doesn’t work with me. If you’ve got an argument, I’ll be delighted to hear and reply to it. Those are the terms of discussion, as far as I’m concerned. So, do you have an argument, or do you not? I’m waiting.”

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