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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

College is now a 'what to think' place, not 'how to think' for yourself

"Professors here teach how to think, not "what to think," college tour guides claim. Don't believe them, writes Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic. Many "professors are going to tell you what to think, and you’re going to backfill that 'truth' with research of your own."

In her new book, On Thinking for Yourself: Instinct, Education, Dissension, she recalls how her father taught her how to think for herself by asking one question: "And what is the best argument on the other side?"

"I had learned the style and the rhetorical turns of making a great case, but I didn’t know the first thing about fortifying it with facts, reason, logic — or the best argument of the side I was treating in such a cavalier way," Flanagan writes.

A teacher should never do your thinking for you. She should give you texts to read and guide you along the path of making sense of them for yourself. She should introduce you to the books and essays of writers who disagree with one another and ask you to determine whose case is better.

Just as professors should introduce students to ideas the professor thinks are wrong, students should confront obnoxious speakers, not "pound on the doors of lecture halls and pull fire alarms," she writes.

Book the largest auditorium, and make sure he's broadcast live on the campus station, Flanagan suggests. "Tell him the only requirement for his visit is that he engage in debate with a student — and then track down the young woman or man who owns this subject. And the professors who can help him or her to make the strongest possible case."

The college classroom should be "a place to train young minds toward a yearning for knowledge and a taste for argument -- to be intellectually curious — even if what they wind up discovering challenges their most cherished convictions," writes Stephen L. Carter in the New York Times.

In the early '70s, when Carter was a Stanford student, William Shockley, the Nobel-winning physicist began arguing that racial differences in I.Q. are primarily genetic. You could call it old-fashioned white supremacy, except that he thought Asians were smarter than whites.

"Student protesters argued that Shockley shouldn’t be allowed to teach; on more than one occasion, they disrupted his classes," writes Carter. "But I didn’t want to see him punished. I wanted to see him refuted."

He got that chance when Shockley debated the issue of I.Q. and inheritance with Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, one of the world’s great geneticists, in Stanford's largest auditorium. The geneticist "made mincemeat of Shockley’s arguments — which is the way that academic disagreements should be decided."

I covered that debate for the Stanford Daily. Two black professors participated too, but I can only remember Cedric X, a psych prof, who insisted the Nation of Islam patrol the auditorium. The other was a historian, I think.

Shockley had a chance to have his say, probably convincing no one. But, later, "debates at Harvard (1973) and Yale (1974) were canceled because of student protests," Carter writes.

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