Faculty from Top Universities Sign Letter Urging Students to Reject ‘Vice of Conformism’

'Don't be tyrannized by public opinion. Don't get trapped in an echo chamber'

Connecticut Hall in Yale’s Old Campus / Wikimedia Commons
• August 29, 2017 2:05 pm


Faculty from Princeton, Harvard, and Yale have signed an open letter to incoming university students, begging them to reject the "vice of conformism," and instead, "Think for yourself."

In "Some Thoughts and Advice for Our Students and All Students," fifteen scholars from nearly as many disciplines agreed that thinking independently "always demands self-discipline and these days can require courage."

"At many colleges and universities what John Stuart Mill called ‘the tyranny of public opinion' does more than merely discourage students from dissenting from prevailing views on moral, political, and other types of questions. It leads them to suppose that dominant views are so obviously correct that only a bigot or a crank could question them," the letter reads. "Since no one wants to be, or be thought of, as a bigot or a crank, the easy, lazy way to proceed is simply by falling into line with campus orthodoxies."

"The love of truth and the desire to attain it should motivate you to think for yourself. The central point of a college education is to seek truth and to learn the skills and acquire the virtues necessary to be a lifelong truth-seeker. Open-mindedness, critical thinking, and debate are essential to discovering the truth. Moreover, they are our best antidotes to bigotry," the faculty members advised. "So don't be tyrannized by public opinion. Don't get trapped in an echo chamber. Whether you in the end reject or embrace a view, make sure you decide where you stand by critically assessing the arguments for the competing positions."

Robert George, Princeton's esteemed conservative legal scholar, told the Washington Free Beacon he drafted the initial text, which was then edited by subsequent signers.

"The statement reflects concerns that I share and have discussed extensively in recent years with colleagues, including many of the statement's signers," wrote George in an email. "We represent a range of political viewpoints, but share a commitment to liberal education in the classic sense. We believe in open-minded inquiry and robust, civil debate."

In March 2017, George co-authored a statement with left-wing academic Cornel West in defense of free speech. It garnered thousands of signatures from scholars across the country.

George said this week's letter was "not circulate[d]…widely for signatures, mainly because we wanted to get it out in time for the beginning of the school year."

He said the list was restricted to the country's top three universities as he has relationships with their faculties, and those institutions are "widely regarded as leaders in American higher education, though they are by no means the only leaders."

Most of those asked to sign did so, according to George.

Carlos Eire, a professor of history and religious studies at Yale, said he immediately added his name, "because I'm deeply alarmed by the rise of intolerance on college campuses, especially because that intolerance comes from one direction only, from the left…If you disagree with them you are immediately branded as evil and/or stupid."

Born in Cuba in 1950, Eire attributed his fear of "self-anointed so-called ‘progressives,'" to his deeply personal understanding of a society without free speech protections.

"I am a victim of communism, lived in a totalitarian state, and fled to the U.S. as a child without my parents, so I could freely think on my own and speak freely," he wrote. "I've already lived in [George Orwell's] 1984, under the ever-watchful eye of Big Brother and his Ministry of Truth, and I know how to spot Big Brother when I see him. And he's scaring the Hell out of me nowadays as his power increases."

Joshua Katz, a Princeton classics and humanities professor who said he considers himself "an old-fashioned liberal," told the Free Beacon he does not believe free speech is a "conservative issue."

"It seems to me thoroughly uncontroversial that students should be encouraged to think for themselves—as should everyone else," he wrote in an email. "I find it depressing that there is need for public statements of this kind, but events on campuses around the country in recent years have shown that many people have what I view as an alarming intolerance of heterodoxy, including when the putatively objectionable opinions were just a few months or years earlier considered ordinary."

The letter can be read in full on the website of Princeton University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, of which George is the director.

Published under: Harvard, Yale University