Thinking Critically at Stanford

In a Washington Post op-ed last Sunday, Heather Wilson, a long-serving member of the Rhodes Scholarship selection committee, expresses her concerns about the state of higher education in America:

Our great universities seem to have redefined what it means to be an exceptional student. They are producing top students who have given very little thought to matters beyond their impressive grasp of an intense area of study.

Wilson provides some examples:

An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president’s health-care bill but doesn’t really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn’t really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral.

What Wilson decries is, in effect, a twofold tragedy. First, the best, most passionate students in America have rarely given much thought to anything outside their chosen area of specialization. Second- and perhaps more importantly- they seem incapable of grappling with important problems of value, morality, behavior, and truth. The moral basis of war, the power of economic incentives over human choices, the proper role of government in society, the existence or absence of objective truth: these are not things that many people discuss on our college campuses.

It would be easy to blame this situation on systemic or institutional factors: the lack of a core humanities curriculum, over-specialization by academic departments, the failure of universities to teach “critical thinking” of this sort. And I’m sure that all of these factors are important. But I think that the real fault lies with us, the students.

It’s not that we don’t care about the “big issues.” This campus, and campuses like it across the nation, are hotbeds of activism and discussion about things like nuclear deterrence, sexual morality, discrimination, poverty, and health care. No, the problem isn’t the absence of discussions; it’s the absence of intellectual skepticism and critical thinking within the discussions. When we are not willing to question our assumptions and arguments, when we don’t even consider the possibility that an opposing opinion might be legitimate, when we resort to yelling and self-righteous ad hominem attacks to counter criticism, we cheat ourselves out of a real, substantive debate.

Groupthink plays a large role in this problem; spending too much time with people who agree with us is bad for the intellect. And this isn’t just a liberal problem, although the paucity of conservative students does tend to generate an atmosphere in which liberal tenets are accepted somewhat blindly. Conservatives suffer from it too: hungry for like-minded company, we seek out right-wing enclaves (like this publication), where no one will ever challenge our assertion that affirmative action is wrong or that market capitalism is the best economic arrangement. As John Stuart Mill said: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” In the cases outlined by Wilson, that of the biochem major jumps out at me. *Support *for the Obama health care reforms I can understand; unthinking, *unquestioning *support, on the other hand, is frankly irresponsible, and smacks of blind faith in the common assumptions of a predominantly liberal campus atmosphere.

It pains me to say it, but health care and other issues that deal with human well-being- especially that of the poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised- are the most likely to exacerbate the worst failings of campus dialogue and critical thinking. It is* absolutely wonderful* and entirely just that we as a student body, we as a generation, are attuned to the needs of the downtrodden and eager to promote the human dignity of all people. If there is one thing I admire about my peers at Stanford above all else, it is their commitment to service and passion for justice. But it is that same passion which renders us blind to legitimate and serious concerns about the *ways *in which we attempt to promote human well-being and social justice. It is that same passion, combined with the ever-present tinge of guilt over our relative success and affluence, that leads us to condemn as heartless anyone who does not immediately assent to any scheme or plan which has human betterment as its end goal. In our zeal, we fail to realize that disagreements about the means by which justice might be achieved are not equivalent to a rejection of the *value *of justice.

And these disagreements are entirely real and entirely legitimate. Wilson’s account provides an excellent microcosm. “Whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral?” Not a likely question when anyone in favor of retaining some nuclear arms is shouted down as a war-monger or painted as insensitive to human suffering. But will giving up our nuclear weapons really help prevent the loss of human life if Iran or North Korea gets the bomb? Support for the health care bill without a good reason? Sadly, all too predictable when dissidents on health care reform are condemned as greedy plutocrats who are willing to tolerate horrendous disease rates among the lower classes. But isn’t it legitimate to argue that the Obama reform bill is doomed to fail because it doesn’t provide strong enough economic incentives to purchase insurance, or that all citizens would be better off with health-savings accounts and less state regulation of insurance? And the list goes on. Conservatives don’t (necessarily) oppose increases in welfare benefits because they’re greedy and don’t care about the poor; rather, they believe that an increase in the size of the welfare state would cause adverse economic effects which hurt everyone’s quality of life, or that it would create a culture of dependency which would hurt human dignity in the long run. The pro-life movement isn’t *insensitive *to the suffering of poor and underage mothers, it’s *sensitive *to the harm done to innocent human beings who are killed before they can take their first breath.

In short, we cannot allow our passion for human betterment- or any other cause- to blind us to the necessity of real critical thinking about our endeavors, our government, and our society. And if we can’t break out of this intellectual stalemate, a poor crop of Rhodes scholars will be the least of our worries.

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