Bad Ideas, Good Education: Navigating College with Purpose and Virtue

Higher education in the 21st century is a mixed bag if ever there was one. Fewer people than ever truly need a college degree in order to succeed, but for those that do, getting into the right program at the right school is critical. Many universities and professors lean pretty far left, and those that don’t often lean just as far to the right. When did college become such a political battleground? Isn’t a university supposed to be a place of learning, a place for all students to have their ideas challenged as they begin to transition into the real world?

Absolutely, if you ask me. And yet, in 2018, many institutes of higher learning seem less concerned with education than with pushing a particular agenda. An increasing number of college classes are being designed to indoctrinate students into particular ideologies to the exclusion of different perspectives; others are just plain irrelevant to any imaginable career. Note that that last head-scratching class isn’t taught at some nowhere community college—it’s at Harvard. Yes, that Harvard. It is also becoming increasingly common for professors to launch into political tirades in lieu of actually trading knowledge and experience with their students. Rather than teaching you how to think, a growing number of professors seem to be more concerned with telling you what to think and are willing to get nasty if you dare to disagree.

So, what is one to do? You’re in your late teens or early twenties, likely not in a position of total self-sufficiency, and you came to college to learn. Presumably, your ultimate goal is to gain a skill set with which to support yourself after graduation.  As a college student, you will be exposed to a great many ideas—some better than others. It will be difficult to sort out which ideas will promote your well-being and which will hinder it.  Sometimes you will disagree with your professors, and you may be reluctant to contradict them, given today’s politically charged academic climate. Fear not, silence isn’t the only option, nor do you have to endanger yourself in the process of defending ideas or principles that are unpopular on your campus.

The first step in deciding how to confront ideas you disagree with is to think carefully about whether they are worth confronting at all. Several variables factor into this decision, and your final standard should be your own integrity, success, and happiness. Ask yourself several questions: how fundamental is the issue at hand? How rational (or irrational) is my teacher? Are they likely to punish me or treat me unfairly? If I remain silent, will that imply that I condone these ideas? Lastly—but perhaps most importantly—is it possible to gain some positive value from this interaction, even if nobody ends up changing their mind?

If your professor says or does something truly indefensible—like denying the Holocaust, claiming no one was killed in Soviet Russia, or even just handing you an assignment that engages in race-based guilt-tripping and insults your intellectual autonomy—then by all means, speak up. But not all situations will be so egregious or clear-cut. In situations where the potential for harm isn’t so starkly obvious, consider whether you or your professor may have misunderstood something or not expressed themselves clearly. Never be afraid to ask them to clarify their view or the terms they’re using if it’s possible you may be hearing something they haven’t said. Ask for more information about their view and consider whether it might aid your own understanding of the issue—even if you still think they’re wrong when class is over.

In short, the most relevant question when a contentious issue arises in your classroom is: does this situation pose a threat to my integrity if I don’t deal with it? The standard (for any question) is never: “what will anyone else think of me?” Rather, you must consider how the situation might impact your mind and your soul. If something totally inappropriate has happened, contest it. If the disagreement is insignificant, let it go. If it’s somewhere in between, this is the time to challenge your professor respectfully, with the ultimate goal of broadening your own understanding (if nothing else).

Consider how you might disagree: by raising your hand right then and there to voice a different opinion? After class in private, or during the teacher’s office hours? In a written assignment about the subject? Unless speaking up is likely to create grievous problems for you, I think you should do so. Some (bad) teachers may not be interested in fostering a free exchange of ideas, but you should be. Perhaps other students will take heart from the courage you exhibit by disagreeing, or be inspired to reconsider their own premises, but at the very least, you preserve your own integrity by refusing to let irrational ideas go unchallenged.

Integrity is one core virtue that you should always seek to practice and preserve; justice is another. All too often, even among generally rational and benevolent people, the fact that the coin of justice has two sides seems to be forgotten. Justice, properly understood, is the practice of treating others as they deserve to be treated. It doesn’t only entail punishing the wicked—it also includes recognizing and rewarding the virtuous. In fact, in terms of your own flourishing, the latter is the more important of the two. Not everyone who regurgitates bad ideas is a moral monster; many people are simply misguided and lack the intellectual tools capable of leading them to the right answers. In short, you should assume that everyone is basically a decent person until proven otherwise.

What does this mean in the context of your campus? For one thing, it means that you should always be polite and extend the benefit of the doubt to others, unless they are truly vicious (most people aren’t). By acting justly, your argument is more likely to be well received and seriously considered. Even if your ideas fail to sway others, you preserve and demonstrate your integrity by acting justly. This way, even if you do not convince your classmates, your own virtue remains intact—and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. You have no control over what others think or do, and their souls are not yours to save. Know when a discussion is over—or not worth entering into to begin with—and keep your sights firmly fixed on your own path.

There is one final element to consider: the possibility that your ideas could make you a target, should you be unfortunate enough to find yourself under the purview of a truly vindictive professor. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen, and as a national trend, it seems to be gradually becoming more common. In the worst cases, professors have physically assaulted students with different views. The best approach is to simply never become a target to begin with, and if you employ the strategies we’ve discussed until now, I think the vast majority of you should be safe.

But what if you’re perfectly civil and polite, and the professor nevertheless forms the mistaken view that you’re a “closet racist?” What if he then promises to “come after you?”  Or what if find yourself in a class taught by someone who is simply hostile to dissenting views in general; then what?

First and foremost, document everything. Written records are an easy and harmless first step and are less potentially problematic for all parties than audio or video recordings. If you can’t record a developing situation, or if you’re not sure such action is yet called for, write it down in detail, including timestamps.

If you find yourself in a truly serious situation, a la Lindsay Shepherd, recording the incident may be warranted (but be sure to check your local laws about recording other people). In many cases, knowing they are being recorded will be enough to make an aggressor rethink their actions. If nothing else, you will have an indisputable record of events with which to defend yourself later. However, this should be a last resort; you should only attempt to record a situation if it has truly gone off the rails and you believe your academic (or general) well-being may be in serious danger.

In any case, the next step is the same: get help. If you truly believe you’ve been treated unfairly, go to the chair of the department, or someone else higher up the chain (with an appointment, if possible). It helps to be the first one to report the incident, and to do so calmly and benevolently.

Rather than barging into the dean’s office in a cloud of rage, compose yourself and express your concerns as just that—concerns, not accusations. Explain what happened and refrain from assuming others’ motives. Make it clear that you seek an amicable but just resolution, and that you only want to focus on your education, not injure or defame anyone. Again, embodying the virtues of justice and integrity will always be your best defense, and will allow you to sleep soundly at night, knowing you did all you could.

Ultimately, no one student can fix our largely broken educational system, nor should you feel like it’s your responsibility to do so. In the grand scheme of things, your time at college is a significant but small part of your life. Remember what you’re here for: to learn, to gain skills, perhaps to network, but most fundamentally, to improve your own life. Defending and living your values doesn’t mean you have to alienate everyone around you. After all, you should be doing just that—defending your values, not using them to attack others. Even in an increasingly irrational world, there is still plenty of beauty and many wonderful people with whom you can nurture mutually beneficial relationships; never dwell on pain or suffering a moment longer than is necessary to overcome it. Live your life and live it well. Nothing else truly matters.

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