September 8, 2017

Think For Yourself

Knowledge is a commodity. Just ask “Siri” or “Alexa.” If you would have said, “Google It,” 10 years ago, few people would have known what that meant. But today “Google It” and “Ask Siri or Alexa” are part of our daily lexicon. Thus some of us are only as smart as our “smart phone” allows us to be.

Known answers are at our fingertips and we are bombarded (even overwhelmed) with data. High alert—“the value of explicit information is dropping.” 

The Age of Information Begs a Question

Are questions becoming more valuable than answers? As I write this, I have just completed putting together a presentation that I will present three times next week at the Honors College at Washington State University.

Do college students want advice? Likely no more than any of us want advice. So instead of thinking about what “sage counsel” I could impart I focused on a question, "What is the meaning and purpose of education?"

“You might be right…”

I recently asked a student who had returned from an Ivy League University about her experience. I asked her what she enjoyed most about school. She told me how much she enjoyed the intellectual stimulation and debate.

Now I was curious. “Did you have any conservative professors, I asked?” She paused for a moment and said, “I don’t think so.” “So what kind of debates did you have,” I asked? Now there was a longer pause. “What do you mean,” she asked? “Well,” I said, “If you did not look at issues and ideas from all vantage points what kind of debate were you having? And if you are not developing your ability to think critically are you really getting an education?”

Now she was thinking. She smiled and said, “Mr. Akers, you might be right.” I am not sure I was right, but thinking about it was a step in the right direction. I think about this exchange frequently and obviously some Ivy League professors are too.

Think For Yourself

On August 29, twenty-eight scholars and teachers at Princeton, Harvard and Yale wrote a letter of advice to students heading off to college. They distilled their advice into three words—“Think for yourself.”

Their advice (unedited) is too good not to share. It is advice that is worthy of contemplation regardless of how young, old, wise, or experienced we are.

Some Thoughts and Advice for Our Students and All Students

"Think for yourself.

Now, that might sound easy. But you will find—as you may have discovered already in high school—that thinking for yourself can be a challenge. It always demands self-discipline and these days can require courage.

In today’s climate, it’s all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture. The danger any student—or faculty member—faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink.

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.

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.

Don’t do that. Think for yourself.

Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable. It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions—including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.

The love of truth…

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.

Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the word “bigot” is a person “who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.” The only people who need fear open-minded inquiry and robust debate are the actual bigots, including those on campuses or in the broader society who seek to protect the hegemony of their opinions by claiming that to question those opinions is itself bigotry.

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.

Think for yourself."

Thinking requires us to wrestle with questions.

John Seely Brown, Chief of Confusion and a former chief scientist at Xerox who headed their Palo Alto Research Center, said, “If you don’t have the disposition to question you’re going to fear change. But if you’re comfortable questioning, experimenting, connecting things—then change is something that becomes an adventure. And if you can see it as an adventure, then you’re off and running.”

The more we are deluged with information (much of which may be masquerading as facts) the more we will need to sift through, evaluate and explore what is worthy of our attention and what is truly truth. This can only be accomplished by asking and wrestling with questions. It is critical that the questions we ask even challenge our own assumptions.

Questions provide us with a gateway to learning. We can’t learn unless we raise questions. Questions are a powerful filtering device that allows us to define what is both reliable and relevant—to think for yourself.

How do you and I create impact that unlocks possibilities, inspire hearts and change lives?

I think about this every day. “Googling it,” or asking “Siri” or “Alexa” won’t provide the answers. They'll give us information, but we will need to pose questions and think deeply to discover the answers.

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