Intellectual Foreclosure on American Campuses

We’ve all seen and heard the screeching campus protesters by now. They’re quite an earful, these overly confident college students who seem to think they should be lecturing the rest of us before they’ve even completed their undergraduate educations. How gratifying it must be to know so much already despite having studied so little.

They may feel precocious with their borrowed rhetoric, but the fact is that it is a very bad sign for college students to have such strident political opinions at such tender ages. This is a clear sign that something has already gone very wrong, and is continuing to go very wrong, in their educations.

College is a time for forming your political opinions and developing your identity -- not for shoving undigested, feel-good soundbites down other people’s throats. That is skipping your education for something else, entirely. Most college students are not sufficiently well read to have fully-formed, or even coherent, political opinions, yet. There is substantial academic groundwork to be done, first, before their views are worthy of serious consideration.

Is it out of order to suggest that students excel in coursework and complete their required reading before reaching inflexible conclusions and demanding others adhere to them? Anything else would be utterly premature and superficial. Their thoughts haven’t had sufficient time to marinate and be subjected to vigorous cross-examination, which is one of the reasons the most vocal protesters are prone to trying to silence anyone who dares to challenge them. That’s what the insecure do. A person who is confident in his or her conclusions welcomes debate. The juvenile simply call out all their immature ego defense mechanisms.

Sadly, college students who are convinced they already have all the right political opinions are experiencing two very unfortunate and damaging developmental problems, for which they require prompt intervention from effective authority figures: Peer Pressure to conform ideologically and Intellectual Foreclosure.

Pressure to conform is nothing new, but shockingly it all-too-often comes from the professors these days, which is indefensible given the vastly unequal power differential. (Why are these inequality-obsessed professors not concerned with that?) This is a form of educational malpractice and abuse: teaching students what to think instead of how to think. This undue pressure is a problem that should be addressed at the administrative level to maintain the integrity of the institution and its mode of academic inquiry, but we are seeing reluctance, impotence, and complicity on far too many campuses.

As for peer pressure, we know that adolescents are always going to seek popularity with their peer group and when dissenters face bullying, intimidation and the risk of ostracism, as is currently happening on today’s campuses, most insecure young people will naturally choose the safe path of aligning themselves with the aggressor. It is, after all, the best place to hide from being the next target. Heck, even seasoned faculty, administrators and college presidents are choosing the appeasement path of least resistance in the face of unbridled aggression.

Here, again, the adults in charge are failing to serve their young charges and, ironically, those calling for “safe places” on campus are the ones creating an unsafe environment for the core purpose of the entire university: the free and open exchange of ideas. Let’s take them at their word and make the universities safe again…to save them from themselves.

We are also seeing an intellectual travesty unfolding that is known as Foreclosure  -- a term popularized by psychologist James Marcia. According to Marcia, we achieve our personal identities by going through a period of questioning easy assumptions that were handed to us by others and subjecting our forming ideas to reality testing. Only in the crucible of exploration and questioning can we earn the right to our own firm opinions, which we are then able to defend, because they are the product of hard work and profound thought.

What bullying and intimidation seek to do is to circumvent and shut down this healthy questioning process before it even begins: the result is a foreclosure of the full thinking process. This is exactly how cults operate, incidentally, and why they are so damaging to adherents. Colleges are supposed to inculcate the ability to engage in reasoned free thought, not to harass the immature into submission to a preprogrammed ideological agenda.

Then there is William Perry’s theory of cognitive development, against which standard the celebrated protestors also fail to measure up. Perry theorized that as we mature intellectually, we proceed through predictable stages of intellectual growth. At the lowest level, we find Dualism. This is the idea that there are only two ways to think: a right way, and a wrong way. Students at this level, which seems to include the noisiest campus protesters, fall prey to simplistic one-sidedness. They memorize buzzwords and reflexively attempt to shout down anyone who tries to question or merely add nuance to their easy, pat protestations. This is also called black-white/either-or thinking and this is the type of logical fallacy that, incidentally, tends to underlie several known psychological disorders.

True education (and possibly some cognitive behavioral therapy) can help students stuck at the lowest level of reasoning to move to higher levels of Perry’s schema, which rises to include Relativism: the realization that not everyone thinks the way you do and that others’ ideas often have merit to them, if you learn about them and consider them carefully. The highest level of thought is the Socratic dialectic, in which intelligent people of varying opinions engage in a civil sharing of ideas that leads everyone to a greater understanding of the full complexity of the issues involved. At this point, you are ready to make justifiable commitments to the ideological positions you will hold and defend within the realm of intellectual possibilities.

This is not what is happening on most college campuses, today. No, instead, we are allowing students to wallow in simplistic Dualism, while attempting to drag others functioning at higher levels of thinking down to their level. This is educational abdication. In some astonishing cases, campuses are actually applauding and rewarding the Dualistic for their unreason and defensive, fascistic tactics. The goal of college educators is to nudge them toward the higher levels of Perry’s paradigm…not celebrate and indulge their being stuck at the lowest cognitive level! This is unreason, itself.

At a certain point, the medium itself becomes the message. It stands to reason that if students had logical arguments backed by solid evidence, they wouldn’t be screaming, would they? No, they would be winning the argument -- calmly and rationally. Because they can’t do that, they resort to baser tactics.

Today, we have actually reached the point where fed-up students at Brown University have resorted to forming a closed, secret group where they are able to speak freely and openly with one another. This is how far the Academy has devolved; students now must be protected from it in order to learn despite it.

If the level of argumentation of which these students are capable is indicative of the outcomes of higher education, then colleges have serious work to do…in the classrooms -- not on the shrieking quad. Foreclosure is one small step away from total bankruptcy. Colleges need to turn this around immediately so the academy can be creditworthy once again.

You cannot create “safe” pockets for ideological bullies without making everywhere else on campus unsafe. Stop trying. College itself must remain a protected space where students and faculty are free to explore and ask questions and express ideas without threats or harassment. This ideological battle has already been fought and decisively won and the First Amendment is the result. Use it.

Bonnie Snyder is the author of The New College Reality and has worked as a college professor, counselor and administrator. As an undergraduate at Harvard and graduate student at Penn State, she witnessed and experienced the silencing and suppression of free thought and expression on multiple occasions