Education, Top Stories

The Student’s Dilemma: Conformity or Education

Every year on university campuses across the country, students like me navigate a variety of disciplines in pursuit of numbers that will open the door to our career of choice. Whether we yearn for a high grade point average (GPA), a high grad school test score, or a high paying job, numbers are what matter to those of us who see university as an important gateway to future happiness and prosperity. However, in certain disciplines, it can be difficult to reconcile this aspect of the student experience with the freedom to pursue our studies in a spirit of open and disinterested inquiry. In the liberal arts programs in particular, activism and ambition can conflict so that students must choose between writing what they think and getting the grades they want and need.

Of course, this ought to be a false dilemma. That it exists at all raises troubling questions about academic liberty—a cornerstone of any educational institution—and what a university education is actually for. Although most schools continue to affirm free inquiry as central to their pedagogic mission, this honorable commitment is being eroded as the humanities and parts of the social sciences become increasingly insular and politicized within a wider climate of hyper-polarization.

Part of the problem is that the marking of work in many liberal arts programs often lacks the same degree of objectivity and rigor found in disciplines like mathematics or the natural sciences. In disciplines such as philosophy, politics, and sociology, professors enjoy considerable latitude to teach and grade in any way they see fit. If a student views a given theory or interpretation differently to his professor or teaching assistant, he can either write what he believes, even though it is at odds with the views of the marker, or he can write what he thinks the marker wishes to read. Granted, there is often a middle ground, but the very existence of such dilemma in the minds of many students unnecessarily inhibits their intellectual freedom. While there is nothing directly prohibiting students from being intellectually honest and open minded, such an approach is hardly incentivized if simply regurgitating a professor’s preferred view is more likely to be rewarded with a higher mark.

The risk of writing an essay that contests the theories promulgated by a professor or teacher’s assistant may be too consequential when the goal is to secure a job or a place in grad school upon which a GPA may be heavily dependent. The intense competition for admission means that every grade and percentage point matters. There is more riding on grad school admission and career prospects than there is on intellectual integrity. As a result, students are implicitly encouraged to sacrifice the latter for the former, and learning what to think becomes more valuable and important than learning how to think. Why would a student such as myself bother to challenge the conventional wisdom and risk a B, when I can simply provide what I know is expected and receive an A?

Something has gone fundamentally awry. This is not to say that every professor will mark heterodoxy more harshly than orthodoxy. There are still professors who value clarity, originality, and consistency over conformity. But students holding views that differ fundamentally from those taught must nevertheless consider and evaluate the risk that they will be penalized for their opinions, particularly when writing about politically contentious topics. Speakers and authors now described as part of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ have become radioactive for many students writing for university courses. They hesitate to cite the work of these figures or even mention the names of thinkers deemed ‘controversial’ or beyond the pale by whoever is responsible for reading it and grading their work. In such cases, it is generally safer to avoid controversy and to rely instead upon those approved scholars already lauded by faculty. We are free to browse the ‘IDW’ on our own time, of course, but this only widens the chasm between learning in the true sense and the demands of a formal education.

This has implications for the meaning and value of university education. On the one hand, colleges are theoretically committed to placing open-mindedness and intellectual honesty at the center of the university experience. On the other, students who see high grades as the only route to success may conclude that conformity is an easier way to achieve that end than free thought. This requires a form of self-censorship that directly contradicts the values universities claim to defend and uphold. Which is not to say that students should be permitted to write whatever they like. But coherent and well-supported argument is surely a better yardstick of academic ability than the robotic repetition of the latest fashionable theory. Instead, a tear in the fabric of university culture is growing that privileges indoctrination and the suppression of academic freedom over open inquiry and the exploration of ideas.

The question for many students has become not “What do I think?” but “What do they want me to write?” For many us, this sacrifice may ultimately be the correct and easy one to make. If we want to be successful, we can curb our intellectual curiosity, not because we are prevented from using it, but because obedient co-operation is in our more immediate best interests.

 

Avel Ivanov studies Ethics, Society & Law at the University of Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter @av3ll

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33 Comments

  1. Stuart Jones says

    Very well written! Always great to see the younger generation speaking up.

  2. Gloria Miller says

    This is a brilliant piece. Goes to show that education cannot always mitigate the two poles of getting students to think what we want them to think and preparing them to challenge conventional wisdom and orthodoxy. Need more students such as yourself to continue breaking this divide.

  3. 1. Given that the author introduces the subject here by pointing out that what he and other students are at university for is “numbers that will open the door to our career of choice”, I’m a little confused as to why it would matter what such students are being asked to regurgitate for marks.

    When the sole purpose of a university education is to function “as an important gateway to future happiness and prosperity”, I would imagine any old crap would do for subjects in the humanities since the only careers that humanities subjects provide “training” for are careers pumping out any old crap for grades to people who just want to know what is on the test until they get the numbers to open career doors.

    2. I would love to meet the 2nd-year philosophy student who could famiiarize herself with enough of the primary and secondary literature on a given “theory” being promulgated by her prof to contest said theory in a 1000 word essay.

    Indeed, as someone who experienced a couple of weeks in a 2nd year philosophy class I would love to meet the student who does enough hard intellectual labour to begin to grasp just about any theory any prof promulgates. I had to ask permission to not attend, not just because the lectures were boring and condescendingly stupid, but because the students who repeatedly “contested” theories had never taken the time to understand them or to consider the idiocy of most of their “questions”.

    That was in the 80s. I’m sure standards have risen now that just about everyone gets into universities.

    • cacambo says

      #2 is spot on. Something tells me Avel Ivanov is one of those rare students. I’d be glad to have him disabuse me of my humanistic shibboleths any time. That said, I have my doubts as to whether intelligent, engaged students are having their well-reasoned arguments suppressed in college classrooms. I could be wrong, but more than anecdotal evidence is needed.

      • “…That said, I have my doubts as to whether intelligent, engaged students are having their well-reasoned arguments suppressed in college classrooms. I could be wrong, but more than anecdotal evidence is needed.”

        At the University of Toronto? Where the Director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute (http://www.wgsi.utoronto.ca/person/rinaldo-walcott @blacklikewho) has tweeted that free speech is white supremacist speech – https://twitter.com/FarLeftWatch/status/939301983428759553 ?

        • That is of course, if @blacklikewho is in fact Rinaldo Walcott. One can find many discussions of tweets attributed to him with that handle, but I have been unable to confirm who owns that twitter handle with certainty. Many of the tweets from @blacklikewho are so absurd and over the top, that I’m starting to question if this really is a U of T prof.

    • John says

      Correct, I’m inclined to think this article is basically groundless, if not fraudulent. I mean, she regularly faces such an excruciating dilemma in her yet she can’t even provide a single example?

  4. Peter Kriens says

    I am missing any hard data … this message is of course welcome in this audience but it would be nice to know how serious and widespread the problem is before I can let my anger go.

  5. Warren says

    In my experience, it was clear very quickly which professors were open to hearing tabooed ideas (as long as they were cogently stated and supported) and which preferred to hear arguments towing their party line. The former presenting their lectures from a neutral and disinterested point of view, while the latter oozed ideological possession. However, I don’t see any problem reconciling the free inquiry of knowledge at university with being forced to turn in a paper in which you disagree just to ensure a GPA (at least while an undergrad). In fact, it gives you the opportunity to steelman an opposing point of view for your paper, allowing you to learn something you might not know, while you can pursue further inquiries on your own or in other settings at the University. My recommendation would be to ask around and find professors that allow you to freely express your ideas before you take the course. If more people did that, the better professors would get more classes and the others would slowly fade away.

  6. Daniel says

    Nice perspective. I too am faced with decisions on what to write when asked questions in my studies. Perhaps it is unwarranted worry, but one can never truly know. I want to be a professor one day.

  7. defmn says

    As it always was so shall it always be.

    It always takes less effort to convince somebody that you understand the issue if you arrive at the same conclusion they did. Human nature is funny that way.

    It was like that in the 70’s when I obtained my degrees and I don’t expect to live long enough to see it change.

    Think of university as a marketplace. Find a store that sells the quality you require at a price you are willing to pay and shop there.

  8. John says

    Ben Shapiro’s advice on this was unequivocal; get the degree.
    Peterson and Farrell say being unheard causes hatred.
    Swallowing can become a habit, the rationalisations will stay the same.
    Next it’ll be getting the job, then it’ll be keeping the job, etc.
    You could swallow yourself.

  9. Chris says

    Unfortunately, Conformism IS an Education. It is one that equips students for positions where who you know (and their opinions) is everything and things you know (e.g. inconvenient facts) are an embarrassment. It used to be required in subjects like medicine and engineering, demanding great originality to work with those limiting facts and yet deliver progressive and socially useful results.

    Now that conformism has become a requirement of the liberal left (who consider themselves to be progressive just because they are), and unless employment in a flash mob or as a stazi informer is your goal, I suggest two tests to help avoid the dilemma:

    1. Choose a subject which makes subjective assessment of questions and answers difficult. Look at previous papers if you can.

    2. Investigate the political affiliations of staff and previous student intake. If its more than 50% liberal left, look for a different college or learn to swallow.

  10. Brianna says

    It’s funny, I discovered Pinker because I was assigned to read one of his books for a linguistics class at an exceptionally liberal liberal arts college.

  11. This is another article, and another series of comments, that makes me think that very few visitors to this site have ever spent serious time in a class in the humanities at a university.

    Humanities classes are not, and should not be, given over to the endless tossing around of “opinions” or the “free exchange of ideas” as appears to be imagined here. As I have mentioned before, the vast majority of 19 and 20 year-olds do not come into university classrooms prepared to have remotely relevant “opinions” about anything they might be expected to study.

    “So, Jessica. What’s your take on Shelley and neo-Platonism? And should we really consider him to have had “leftist” politics avant la lettre or do you think he was just a pseudo-intellectual libertine who harassed the serving girls and penned atheist tracts out of post-coital guilt?”

    “Uh. Yes. Like, our humanity is not up for debate and Shelley was a white man. And Beyonce!”

    I do suspect what has happened is that humanities departments, having been gutted by budget cuts mandated by neoliberals, conservatives, libertarians and “classical liberals” working together to enforce market disciplines on “education”, have had to fall back on market-driven slogans like “the customer is always right” and begin to encourage instructors to dumb down their courses and lower their grading standards in order to keep that “product” flowing off the shelves.

    You want Walmart economics to function in university settings, you can expect “made in China by virtual slave labour”-type outcomes. And this goes for whether you conceive of the product as the students or the teaching.

  12. Stefan Thomson says

    There is so much in this article that I find inaccurate or just downright wrong.

    1. “Although most schools continue to affirm free inquiry as central to their pedagogic mission, this honorable commitment is being eroded as the humanities and parts of the social sciences become increasingly insular and politicized within a wider climate of hyper-polarization.”

    Since you did not provide any examples, I will have to make assumptions for you. In the humanities, we have subjects that have changed rapidly over the last few decades as more research is done. Linguistics (my field) is virtually unrecognizable from the field as it was practiced 50 years ago. This is largely due to new researchers challenging how things were done at the university level. History is an always evolving field as new interpretations on events are put forward. Geography encompasses so many different specialties that new interpretations are inevitable. All three of these are put under pressure from politics and are hyper-polarized largely outside of academia. If they appear insular, it’s just because they have to defend themselves from talking heads that know nothing about the subjects claiming to be the one and only source of truth.

    2. “In disciplines such as philosophy, politics, and sociology, professors enjoy considerable latitude to teach and grade in any way they see fit. If a student views a given theory or interpretation differently to his professor or teaching assistant, he can either write what he believes, even though it is at odds with the views of the marker, or he can write what he thinks the marker wishes to read.”

    It appears as if you are speaking only about essays. Essay grading is always going to be a subjective art. If you know of a way to make this not true, please step forward and claim your nobel prize. That being said, any paper I ever wrote at the undergrad level was by necessity slightly more than a regurgitation of talking points from the class because of the extreme brevity. Any contradiction of these points would take far more sources or experimentation than would be possible for a short paper. I find it hard to believe that someone in Psych 101 would be able to explain the points discussed in detail and have enough space to develop arguments to contradict them.

    3. “In disciplines such as philosophy, politics, and sociology, professors enjoy considerable latitude to teach and grade in any way they see fit. If a student views a given theory or interpretation differently to his professor or teaching assistant, he can either write what he believes, even though it is at odds with the views of the marker, or he can write what he thinks the marker wishes to read.”

    It seems you don’t understand the concept of education. If you sign up for a class, they will teach you the information covered in that course. If you sign up for evolutionary biology and start writing papers about why evolution is a lie, and site answersingenesis as an academic source, it will obviously be viewed that you did not pay attention to the information presented, or have not understood it completely enough to form a cohesive argument. You sign up for courses to learn the information they present, not to have the courses reinforce your opinions.

    4. “Speakers and authors now described as part of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ have become radioactive for many students writing for university courses. They hesitate to cite the work of these figures or even mention the names of thinkers deemed ‘controversial’ or beyond the pale by whoever is responsible for reading it and grading their work.”

    Again, you appear not to have learned how to source articles. I do not actually know to whom you are referring, but it appears as if you are sourcing conspiracy theory websites and trying to pass them as facts. Any (peer-reviewed) paper can be included as a source in writing papers as long as you can read it critically, look at the sources, and understand its shortcomings. Quoting Infowars proves that you want to learn what it says on Fox News, not what legitimate sources have to say about a topic.

    5. “The question for many students has become not “What do I think?” but “What do they want me to write?””

    More likely, the professor wants you to learn “What did this author mean when writing about this topic”, or “Prove to me that you did the readings and understood them”.

    6. “Which is not to say that students should be permitted to write whatever they like. But coherent and well-supported argument is surely a better yardstick of academic ability than the robotic repetition of the latest fashionable theory.”

    Agreed, but again, point 2. Unless you are writing a 4,000+ word paper, you will not have enough space to do this effectively.

    7. The final critique I have of your argument is that you appear to want to have graduate level discussions about topics at the undergraduate level without first learning the basics of a subject. Undergraduate degrees are there to help you learn how to do research, learn how to properly understand strengths and weaknesses in arguments, and learn the basic facts of a topic. It is only once you start graduate level classes having already learned the basics that students begin to argue against mainstream topics. Skipping to arguing against a point without first understanding its fundamentals will only lead you to making mistakes by not understanding what it is you are talking about in the first place.

  13. dirk says

    @Stefan: I think you’ r very right here. As somebody who studied botany, entomology and biochemistry, I do not recognize any of the issues at stake in the article. Although, having some knowledge of items as studied in anthropoly and sociology (not to speak of theology), I very well know that my experience cannot be the universal one.

  14. dirk says

    Another funny experience in a classroom. A rather leftist and angry professor was invited, to explain how rotten the system was, and the students (20, 21 yrs old) all noted this down, without any emotion or disagreement ( as if in Alice’s crazy jury), as if it was a normal class on geography. I learned they did this to earn “points”, how different this all was in my time, not so very long ago.

  15. Mack says

    Curiously (to me, at least), many of my dual-credit community college students want to know what to think (or, rather, not-think) about a topic. They are desperately anxious for As in order to be admitted to Name Brand University. Few want to know much of anything or delight in anything.

    But then, this is what The People, bless them, want.

  16. dirk says

    Curiously for you (and my generation? and many of the Quillette readers?), but quite normal for them, I fear!

  17. BrisBen says

    In my experience, the willingness of an academic to support free thinking and challenging hypotheses was proportionate their time AWAY from academia. I found the more insular and narrow thinking came from the ‘pure’ academics who had never held a job outside a university.

  18. dirk says

    Same applies to art BB. Academic art style is scholarly, classical, traditional, tried out. New style (impressionism, expressionism, cubism) all this was developed outside the academia, and mostly even ridiculed and withheld by this academia. That’s how it works! But, at the end,also impressionism etc became part of that academia, of course. Conclusion: academia bites genius. In natural science this does not apply (or?).

    • Ben says

      Good call dirk, however I have as much knowledge of the arts as The Guardian about Trump’s actual successes, i.e. no knowledge and complete refusal to get any; so I therefore can’t comment. In natural science at least there are tests of hypotheses and assumptions, which over time, with technology (microscopes and other whiz-bangery) get proven or ‘readjusted’. There is some aspect of academia in science re the hypotheses and assumptions, plus group think, as Galileo and others suffered from. This is where we should be ever appreciative of the ability of science to be proven and discredit the academics where they try and dominate thought. That process should be applied elsewhere, but sadly the arts is a victim of this scholarly treason hence I refuse to stand in a gallery and ho-hum over a picture of dots of paint (my first art experience in High School). A day I will never get back…

      • dirk says

        Better go and see the old masters Ben, this week a new Rembrandt was bought at Christies by a smart museum official in Holland (for 156.000 euro, because the owner didn’t know it to be a Rembrandt), absolutely fantastic, the young man looks you right into your eyes, scary even. And, of course, in those times, no academias were deemed necessary to produce master works.

  19. Rick Phillips says

    If students feel they cannot be “intellectually honest and open minded” when expressing contrarian views in work presented for grading (assuming such views are thought through and supported by evidence) then they should seriously consider changing courses or even disciplines.

  20. Chester Draws says

    It’s wrong to think enforced conformism works.

    Often its directly contradictory. Forcing people to write what they know not to be true just pisses them off. They grow to hate it.

    That’s why the progressive monopoly of university hasn’t led to very much. Trump, Brexit, 5-Star, and all the rest.

    Persuasion is far more effective.

    • dirk says

      I hear a late Spock adept here, and certainly not an Amy Chua.

    • BrisBen says

      Hi Chester, valid comment and I agree re enforced conformism; however the “not very much” statement is inaccurate as the effect of Trump and Brexit is very much indeed! In my view these outcomes are as a result of the kick-back against that academic and left-wing conformism. Ironically it was the non-conformists who rallied in both to send messages, whether the message was effective, noble or just being belligerent.

  21. paul f renda says

    A poem: The final solution to independent thought(university).
    By paul f renda firn44644@mypacks.net
    The politically correct Ivy of the Ivy university buildings
    Stings As much as the Barb wire
    in the most vicious Nazi concentration camps
    the barb wire of the concentration camps contained the physical human beings
    but the minds and hearts were still free to think and love.
    The Sting of poison ivory can be ameliorated with calamine lotion
    what is the calamine lotion for the political correct Ivy.
    End.

  22. John says

    As someone who graduated a little more than a year ago, and who finds myself increasingly pushed to the right by the more toxic aspects of leftism, including all the egregious excesses of campus leftism, I similarly have to voice skepticism regarding the sweeping claim that students regularly face such a dilemma in humanities departments. This is only my anecdote, of course, but I obtained a bachelor’s in philosophy at a state university and I can’t think of a single instance, even in the couple of graduate courses I took, where there might have been any opportunity for the professor to drastically alter a grade solely because of the political ideology of the student.

    Perhaps the case is entirely different for literature classes and these ideological disciplines such as gender studies, not to mention these “toxic whiteness” classes. But even then, you’d think these days it would be easy to present an obvious example of this, such as an eloquent paper getting an F because of some conservative-leaning remark versus a similar paper that didn’t.

    Undoubtedly there are good reasons to be concerned about conformity and regressive thought-policing on universities, and perhaps even reasons to be wary of the humanities entirely, but this won’t be helped by falling into the trap of simply claiming a fashionable opinion is true. Nor will it help our cause to be blatantly hypocritical, such as by focusing merely on the disparity of right vs. left-leaning professors in general, or to completely ignore certain issues on the right which may have contributed to the current climate (such as attacks on academia in years past and the libeling of scientific fields unfavorable to Republican partisan beliefs).

  23. Confused here…in UK universities, exams are graded by external examiners and essays are graded once by the professor, once by another lecturer in the same department, and once by an external examiner. Some exams are marked by the professor and again by an external examinder, and those exams the students’ identities are anonymised to prevent favouritism or discrimination. Not saying that a dilemma may not exist, because as I’ve just said, 1/3 of marks for essays come from the professor, as do half the marks for some exams. But unless US universities are vastly different, pandering to your prof would be just as likely to disadvantage as advantage you.

  24. Mike van Lammeren says

    I earned a degree in Ontario, Canada, from 1989 to 1993, and another from 1999 to 2000. I never held back on my opinions, and neither should any student today. Even if it means losing a few marks, do not sell out your beliefs. Going along quietly with the bullies was the first mistake that Solzhenitsyn, and millions more made.

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