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Independent Thinking, Conformity, and Democracy in Education

It’s a good thing to aspire for truth and “correct” thinking. But when the immediate aim of education is to ensure students think in the right way, it’s far too easy to begin infringing on the democratic ideals that make true education joyful and life-changing.

I recently had several encounters with a quote, attributed to early 20th-century educator and civil rights activist, Nannie Helen Burroughs, that says insightfully, “education is democracy’s life insurance.” Though it turns out to be a misquote—Burroughs actually referred to “education and justice” [Think on These Things, 1982]—it’s a sentiment I often hear in higher education. The basic idea is that education ought to empower people with an ability to discern fact from fiction which, in turn, helps them resist manipulation and act for themselves. It should therefore come as no surprise that many educators view our mandate as one of adhering to truth in order to combat dangerous ideas, overcome oppression, and preserve self-governance.

But is this what actually happens? I fear that all too often our sincere efforts to teach truth instead create pressure to conform to prevailing opinions. One reason for this, as I see it, is an understanding of the purpose of education as primarily the production of correct understandings. Accurate information is, of course, an absolutely essential part of education. However, when not understood as part of a larger process for which the final good is independent reasoning, an exclusive focus on correctness reduces learning to the acquisition of a set of facts and the role of the instructor to that of an expert who selects which facts to teach (or not teach) and corrects erroneous interpretations of them. Though often well-intended and justified by the compelling idea that misinformation can be (and has been) used as a weapon to deceive the masses, an approach that privileges correctness over individual thinking threatens to dampen the kind of free inquiry and open debate that truly provides a bulwark for democracy. To disallow ideas, even wrong ones, is to demand conformity.

A gospel perspective on learning points to a continual process that leads to greater diversity and independence of thought. Here, expert knowledge is not the end of education but a means for developing individuals who, in the words of Robert P. George, “think more deeply, more critically, and for themselves.” When institutions are committed to education as a process of instilling in students the ability to reason clearly, rigorously, critically, and ultimately individually, education is liberating. It harnesses students’ natural curiosity about the world while using expert knowledge to empower them to solve problems thoughtfully and autonomously, even as it allows for the possibility that wrong or even offensive ideas will be brought into public view.

Two Views on Education and Democracy

To interrogate the link between education and democracy, it is helpful to consider what these terms mean. “Democracy” is generally understood as a system where citizens freely elect those who establish and maintain the legal structures that govern society. In this way, a democratic society is one in which the right to set and enforce rules resides in the population that is bound by those rules. Because a large and diverse population may hold a number of different and competing views, democratic systems are understood to function best in practice when they allow everyone to have an equal opportunity to contribute their individual values, ideas, and beliefs to the public discourse and, consequently, to the shaping of society and its governing structures.

A well-functioning democracy requires a population that is capable of engaging thoughtfully in the policy-making process. This will naturally lead to opposing viewpoints, and thus it is also requisite that the population be willing to engage in civil debate. Democracy is threatened when the political climate grows so divisive that it becomes preferable to remove opposition rather than debate it. The role of education, then, is to protect democracy by cultivating a population able to engage in civil debate, both through critical thinking as well as an appreciation for the value of new and different perspectives. 

There are at least two ways that education might be understood to support these democratic ideals. One is that education leads to clearer and more nuanced reasoning which in turn empowers people to think for themselves when confronted with social, political, or moral complexities. Such empowered individuals will consequently resist being misled by falsehoods precisely because they have learned to think for themselves rather than to trust the siren song of those who would deceive for their own gain. Thus, education supports democracy by providing individuals with the tools they need to participate in meaningful public discourse with rigorous thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and clear articulation of personal viewpoints. Seen this way, education is not so much a means of teaching what is right and what is wrong, but a means of enabling individuals to discover on their own what is right and what is wrong.

In another view, education is seen as a means of transmitting a set of facts that have, usually through years of research and scholarly debate, been accepted by experts as true. This view of education critically relies on professors who, having spent the bulk of their lives dedicated to understanding the nuances and intricacies of specialized problems, should be able to disentangle webs of competing and incomplete information thereby enabling them to guide students to the truth. Then, by learning to seek out and rely on expert knowledge, individuals ought to be better equipped to avoid misinformation and, consequently, exploitation. This is understood to support democracy because it eliminates the likelihood of wrong ideas becoming prevalent. If correct ideas are critical to developing effective public policy, then when people are deceived by misinformation they cannot competently govern themselves. Those who know the facts (i.e., those who are educated) will thus be able to recognize deception and resist it.

The fundamental role of education is to develop the individual.

Although these two views are not mutually exclusive—education can certainly empower individual reasoning and combat wrong ideas simultaneously—they diverge in an important way. In the first view, the fundamental role of education is to develop the individual such that learners, having completed their formal education, are able to address new and complex issues on their own. In the second view, expertise and correctness are emphasized. One who has completed a formal education has thus acquired a set of facts and an appreciation for using them to interpret information correctly, though they may gain little experience discovering and interpreting new facts independently.

This second view is compelling for good reason. The world is complex. Information and misinformation bombard from every corner. Who better to make sense of this than an expert instructor who has invested a tremendous amount of time and resources to examine data, sort out facts, and wrestle with conflicting explanations in order to reach theoretically consistent and empirically supported conclusions? This is also sound economics since greater efficiency and productivity are realized when people specialize. If everyone had to provide for their own food, shelter, and clothing, there would be no time or resources left to develop other life-enhancing innovations. Thus, society benefits from modern technologies precisely because some have dedicated their lives to developing them, complimented by others who specialize in the production of basic needs. Should the production of knowledge be any different? 

However, the former view of education is ultimately more democratic. By prioritizing independent thinking, it inherently welcomes all views to public and scholarly debate. To disallow an idea, even an incorrect one, would be to discourage independent thinking. Instead, all are urged to bring their ideas to discussions and then to engage in rigorous and critical, but civil, analysis of those ideas in a collaborative pursuit of truth. Such an approach is more likely to help students understand how to reason thoughtfully by helping them interrogate and determine correctness on their own. This understanding of education thus protects democracy by producing a population better able to elevate public discourse and contribute meaningfully diverse perspectives in policy debates.

Correct Ideas and Self-governance

This is not to say that education should not be concerned with teaching facts, but rather that we must clearly understand the role for expert knowledge and correctness in an educational process where the final outcome is the ability to discover truth for oneself—not just to know it. 

Here, we might recall a well-known statement attributed to Joseph Smith: “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” This statement clearly maintains that there are, in fact, correct principles and, therefore, wrong ones. Moreover, it is unequivocal in the position that correct ones ought to be taught. Yet, it recognizes the agency of the learner in that process: Correct principles are central, but the learner is granted responsibility for their application. Facts, therefore, are not the end, but rather a means of individual empowerment. 

Further insight comes from other scriptures, such as those exhortations oft-quoted among Latter-day Saint educators to “ … study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (D&C 90:15) and to “… learn wisdom in thy youth” (Alma 37:35). Indeed, many a sermon has been given emphasizing to members of the Church the importance of continual learning, including secular learning

At the same time, however, the scriptures also reveal healthy skepticism toward those who claim to be learned, such as when we read “… and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they who he despiseth” (2 Nephi 9:42) or “And [Sherem] was learned … wherefore, he could use much flattery, and much power of speech, according to the power of the devil” (Jacob 7:4). Learning is highly valued, but to “be learned” is apparently to be viewed with some suspicion.

In my view, this differential treatment of “learning” versus “being learned” stems from an understanding of learning as an ongoing process, whereas to be learned suggests an end to that process. The former requires humility and acknowledges the limits of current understandings and the need for continual refinement, while the latter leads to arrogance in believing that the learning is finished and the facts are known. Indeed, the only time “learned” is described as something desirable in the scriptures is when it is qualified: “… to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29, emphasis added). This suggests a view of education that respects a process of individual growth and cautions against believing that expertise is the ultimate end. We are clearly to seek out truth and correct false understandings of the world. Yet, we must understand this as a process of developing independence, which is really the product of a democratizing education.

Correctness and Conformity

Properly understanding the role of correctness in education matters because when correctness becomes the central purpose it is easy to create a learning environment in which conformity is the actual outcome. My fear is that while higher education ostensibly recognizes the value of developing independent thinking, there are trends toward forgetting to allow students to “govern themselves” owing to a view of education that stresses “correct principles” in ways that chill free expression and are thus effectively anti-democratic.

One recent manifestation of this trend can be found, perhaps ironically, in sincere and well-intended efforts to foster the important and gospel-supported values of diversity and inclusion. Take, for example, this excerpt in a suggested syllabus statement: “We cannot be blamed for misinformation that we have learned and for taking unconscious advantage of our privilege, but we will be held responsible for repeating misinformation or engaging in oppressive behavior once we have learned otherwise.” While this seems to come from a genuine desire to include everyone and create classroom environments free from contention and harm, it does so by disallowing whatever is deemed to be “misinformation.” Yet, what constitutes misinformation is not clarified or defined with any precision beyond vague references to “privilege” and “oppressive behavior.” Nor does the statement spell out how a violator will be “held responsible”—though incidents of students being humiliated and even punished for their ideas makes it easy to imagine. 

While fostering a safe and inclusive educational environment is a worthy goal and one that should be pursued, the lack of clarity in what is and is not allowed coupled with the threat of punishment is a recipe for avoiding the kind of deep, interrogative discussions that lead to true learning. What student, having a view that might possibly be framed as oppositional, would feel free to express it when the syllabus reads like this? While some hurt may be spared, it is likely that the harm resulting from self-censorship will extend far beyond the benefits of reducing offensive comments—something suggested by at least one prominent North Korean defector who was surprised to experience some elements of prestigious higher education that discouraged independent thinking in similar ways to what she experienced in her home country.

In fact, syllabus statements such as the one above contrast sharply with principles of academic freedom as articulated, for instance, in the University of Chicago’s widely lauded statement: “Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility … concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community” (emphasis added). In a similar vein, the ACLU argues that speech restrictions are ineffective ways to combat bigotry and that banning wrong ideas can threaten all ideas.

The underlying problem, in my view, is that mandates such as the syllabus statement above stem from a view of education that values correctness over individual thought. If correctness is the goal, it is logical to disallow what is deemed to be wrong, whether on scientific or moral grounds. But, this is a recipe for justifying the removal of any form of alternative viewsand debate amongst diverse views is not only a hallmark of a healthy democracy but a fundamental driver of rigorous scientific inquiry. It is not rigorous to simply defend what is right, we must also be able to logically refute what is wrong. While misinformation can be harmful, it is better to debate, interrogate ideas, and, when applicable, refute incorrect ones on their meritsnot by disallowing them. 

Indeed, to disallow ideas is to demand conformity and will only discourage the kind of open discussions that are critical to an education that teaches students to be independently thoughtful. Moreover, it actually reduces the diversity of views brought to democratic debate. Instead of encouraging an exchange of ideas as part of a process of continual refinement, this approach pushes dissent out of the classroom, relegating it to dark corners where it will fester without the benefit of rigorous interrogation.

This problem is real, as evidenced by an alarming trend toward self-censorship in both higher education and public discourse. Reports over the last decade lament that discussion of controversial topics are being treated as hate speech and suggest a trend toward devaluing free expression on campuses. That faculty and students increasingly feel unable to participate freely in critical debate is further suggested in the growing members in organizations challenging conformity on college campuses, such as the Academic Freedom Alliance and the Heterodox Academy. This has real consequences for learning and democracy.

The attitude of privileging correctness over reasoning also spills into public discourse when those who question educated experts (“the learned”) are framed first as uneducated, then ignorant, then easily manipulated, and ultimately a threat to democracy. Yet, this line of reasoning is decidedly anti-democratic. Expert knowledge is useful because of its substance in supporting logical, rigorous, and sincere truth-seeking. If an argument is wrong on the basis of what experts have found, then it ought to be defeated by applying the substantial information and facts provided by those experts to a rigorous examination of the argument, not by a shallow appeal to the credentials of someone who opposes it. Nevertheless, in the din of social media the refrain, “I trust the experts and, therefore, you are wrong,” rings loud, void of any semblance of careful, clear, or independent thinking.

For education to be truly democratizing, it is, therefore, critical that expertise and correctness be used to shed light on complexities in support of nuanced arguments, not to determine what ideas can and cannot be mentioned at all, lest we lend credibility to accusations that universities are becoming indoctrination centers. When knowing the facts becomes the only purpose of education, orthodoxy, not democracy, is the result.

Dealing with the Incorrect and Offensive

That said, an approach to education that allows all views to be brought to class must accept that the floor will sometimes be given to ideas that are wrong and even harmful. This tension between free speech and efforts to support diversity and inclusion is very real, as suggested in a report by the Knight Foundation and Gallup that found students want campuses to be inclusive and safe, but they also want open discussion and protection of all views, including disagreeable ones. Balancing these values is, according to the report, essential for maintaining democracy. How should we handle this? 

When correctness becomes the central purpose it is easy to create a learning environment in which conformity is the actual outcome.

It is, perhaps, more straightforward to deal with incorrect ideas rather than offensive ones. For example, should a flat-earther be allowed to make their case in an introductory course on earth sciences? On the one hand, what if they convince others the earth is flat? This certainly causes harm since it’s undeniably false—and flat-earthers do sometimes convince people. On the other hand, it provides an opportunity for developing analytical abilities. What would happen if the instructor, instead of declaring the idea false and disallowing it, led a discussion focused on stepping carefully through the logic both of flat earth theories and of the scientific experts who have contended with them? Perhaps even a group activity where students themselves research specific claims on both sides and subject them to analytical rigor using the scientific tools they have at their disposal. Scrutinizing the scientific logic of various claims would be a powerful way to demonstrate clear and rigorous thinking, using correct principles to engage with better precision and deeper understanding.

While this may not convince everyone, it seems more likely to enhance thought than would preventing students from inspecting their ideas altogether. It is also better aligned with fostering an inclusive environment in which all are welcome. Treating dissenting students with respect by subjecting their proposals, even their wrong ones, to serious academic rigor is a powerful example of civil engagement in the pursuit of fundamental truth.

Dealing with ideas deemed offensive, however, poses a more complex problem. Offensive proposals can cause harm when the ideas make others feel excluded, insulted, or oppressed. Moreover, what if the topic at hand is not a matter of objective scientific inquiry but of personal morality, or the ideas have harmful undertones such as racism or violence? Inclusivity statements in syllabi are thus not without purpose, a fact tacitly acknowledged by the Chicago Statement which allows for restricting forms of expression that are, for instance, illegal or defamatory, even as it maintains that such restrictions should be narrowly tailored. 

So, is it justified to disallow offensive ideas to be brought to class, and, if it is, can they be restricted in ways that do not work against democratic ideals? As suggested earlier, there is a fundamental problem with objectively defining offensiveness that already demands skepticism toward policies that disallow ideas solely on that basis. But even if there is broad agreement on an idea that is harmful, I am not convinced that disallowing it is the best approach in an educational setting. Similar to carefully examining factually incorrect ideas, subjecting offensive ideas to the rigor of precise analytical inquiry is more likely to defeat them than is forcing them into hiding. As Louis Brandeis famously said, “sunlight is … the best of disinfectants.” 

More importantly, however, is that if education is critical in the defense of democracy, then the costs of restricting ideas, even if those ideas are toxic, are too large. It has a chilling effect on the ideals of free expression and restricts participation in public discourse. It advances, if unintentionally, a view that education is only about correctness, creating unanimity of thought according to ideas that are deemed permissible. Even though a professor may be an expert on their own disciplinary approaches to sensitive issues like racism, gender, environmentalism, or abortion, is it really their job to influence students in what positions they should take on these issues? Or is it rather their job to teach correct principles in order to encourage thoughtful exploration of the many perspectives on these issues with the ultimate goal of producing students capable of engaging in public debate from a position of civility, thoughtfulness, and individual thinking? The latter prospect is an uncomfortable one for many of us in education because it means we must accept that some of our students may go out into the world feeling empowered to support values we think are wrong. But that’s arrogance on our part and it thwarts the values of diversity and true democracy. 

I do not claim to have all the answers to this problem beyond recognizing that both the expression of bad ideas and their restriction is harmful, the former by causing discomfort and offense, and the latter by chilling individual thinking. I think, perhaps, the key may be in the age-old public virtues of humility and civility. Educators and students alike must recognize that learning is a life-long process and what we now see as wrong or offensive may not be when we better understand the relevant nuances. To get there, we must allow all viewpoints to the conversation, subject them to rigorous inquiry and debate, and respect that we may not always agree even on matters of vital importance. This does not mean that we must tolerate dissent and even objectively wrong ideas, but that we must allow them to be articulated and then engage with them, opposing when needed, that we might collectively cultivate a diversity of thought that will move us closer to truth.

From the Chicago Statement: “It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments [of what is wrong or offensive] for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.” Or in Elder Holland’s words: “Defend your beliefs with courtesy and compassion, but defend them.” If this applies to participation in debate and discourse in the public square, how much more ought it to apply in our approach to education and learning in the academy where people learn the reasoning skills and ideas that they take to the public?

Liberating Education

Robert P. George reminds us in his reflection on the purposes of a liberal arts education: “… our critical engagement with great thinkers enriches our understanding and enables us to grasp, or grasp more fully, great truths—truths that, when we appropriate them and integrate them into our lives, liberate us from what is merely vulgar, coarse, or base” [Robert P. George, 2013, Conscience and Its Enemies]. Education is liberating when it combines the democratic ideals of individual expression with the academic ideals of rigorous analysis. The result is not just a correctly informed public, but an independently thinking one. 

In a conversation some time ago with a colleague, we lamented a particular curricular decision that would, in our shared view, dilute the level of intellectual rigor required in our courses. This was bad because, as my colleague said, “democracy depends on it.” As much as I agreed with this in abstract, it was clear in the broader context of our conversation that he was presuming that if students were more critical thinkers they would reach conclusions that aligned with his politics. Maybe. Maybe not. The point is: It doesn’t matter. If we develop more critical thinkers, we introduce a wider variety of thoughtful and rigorously considered ideas to the public discourse, and that is truly democracy’s life insurance. Correctness is important, but it is vital that we understand education as a process, perhaps an unending one, through which we value critical, clear, and independent thinking

After all, democracy depends on it.

About the author

Stephen J. Moody

Stephen J. Moody, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University. He specializes in the intersection of language and social science, particularly topics dealing with social identity and intercultural interaction.
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