Colleges Are Lying to Their Students

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If you’ve taken a college tour lately, either as an applicant or as the parent of an applicant, you may have noticed that at some point—usually as you’re on the death march from the aquatic center to the natural-sciences complex—the tour guide will spin smartly on her heel, do the college-tour-guide thing of performatively walking backwards, and let you in on something very important. “What’s different about College X,” she’ll say confidently, “is that our professors don’t teach you what to think. They teach you how to think.”

Whether or not you’ve heard the phrase before, it gets your attention. Can anyone teach you how to think? Aren’t we all thinking all the time; isn’t the proof of our existence found in our think-think-thinking, one banal thought at a time?

On Thinking for Yourself
On Thinking for Yourself

The tour eventually ends, and in a couple of hours, you’re on another college campus, and while you’re marching from that institution’s climbing gym to its sophomore-student housing, a different tour guide spins on his heel, speeds up, and lets you in on his school’s secret: “What’s different about College Y,” he says—with what seems to be complete confidence that you haven’t heard such a thing before—“is that our professors don’t teach us what to think; they teach us how to think.”

Each of the guides seems to think this is a point of difference about his or her college, which is itself a sign that they have spent a lot more time in the “what to think” school of higher education than in the “how to think” one. When you’re visiting a college, walk through the corridors of some of the humanities departments. Look at the posters advertising upcoming events and speakers, read the course listings, or just stand silent in front of the semiotic overload of the instructors’ office doors, where wild declarations of what they think and what they plan to make you think will be valorously displayed.

Does this look like a department that is going to teach you how to think?

The truth of the matter is that no one can teach you how to think; but what they can do is teach you how to think for yourself.

To the extent that I have learned how to think for myself, it’s because my father taught me. Usually by asking me a single question.

For the love of God, I hated that question. And for some reason I always, always forgot to see it coming. My father was an academic and a writer who cared a great deal about teaching, and he was never off the clock.

There we’d be, chatting away, when some new subject or other would heave into view, and I’d launch into a long assessment of it. I’d be certain—absolutely positive—that I was right. My father would listen, head cocked a little to the side, often smiling a bit, sometimes raising his eyebrows after an especially bold point. For some reason, I would feel encouraged—not wary—and I’d bash ahead into bolder assessments.

Eventually, I’d run out of steam and finish up, with some sort of gesture meaning “case closed.”

There would be a moment of silence. And then my father would say—gently, because there was zero need to say it any other way: “And what is the best argument of the other side?”

The best argument of the other side! Jesus Christ—the other side? The whole point of the argument was to destroy the other side! I was there to illuminate and then devastate the other side by engaging deeply with the worst it had to offer.

Which is usually a light lift.

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.

You don’t have to delve into the arcana of the Third Reich to destroy anyone making a case for it. But these layups rarely present themselves in decent places. Most of the time, the subjects we talk about are—for all of their flattening by cable news and internet wormholes and all the rest of it—extremely complicated.

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.

Many college professors don’t want to do that today. They don’t want to “platform” a writer they think is wrong; they don’t want to participate in “both sides-ism.” The same thing is true for the students who pound on the doors of lecture halls and pull fire alarms and throw garbage cans down hallways to protest the 45-minute speech of a visitor.

They believe in sympathetic magic. They believe that words—even those spoken within a lecture hall—will damage them and their classmates. The truth is that they’re scared. They don’t think their ideas can outmatch those of the hated speaker.

Is there anything more satisfying than watching a debate in which the sophist gets defenestrated by someone smarter, better prepared, and obviously right?

Don’t bang on the doors of the lecture hall. Universities should book this character in the biggest auditorium they have. Broadcast him live on a campus radio station. 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.

Do you think evil can stand up against that student’s case? It can’t.

The truth bats last.

In the broadest possible sense, “what’s wrong” with the modern American university is that although it still understands itself to operate under the model established by the 19th-century German university—which emphasized academic freedom, seminars, and laboratories as means of allowing students to discover the truth for themselves—it’s becoming a parody of that model. The professors are going to tell you what to think, and you’re going to backfill that “truth” with research of your own.

To college-bound students, I would say this: The college campus is full of salesmen eager to get you to buy the deluxe model without so much as a test drive. But it’s your life and your mind, and—as of present writing—you have every right to think and speak and write for yourself. You’re needed out here.


This essay is adapted from the introduction to the book On Thinking for Yourself: Instinct, Education, Dissension.

On Thinking for Yourself: Instinct, Education, Dissension
By Caitlin Flanagan

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

Caitlin Flanagan is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She is the author of Girl Land and To Hell With All That.

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