BEARD | The Freedom to Think Critically

BEARD | The Freedom to Think Critically

As I walk around campus and witness the “die-in” protests and hear of students being referred for disciplinary action for free speech, I can’t help but reflect on how the Cornell administration has warped this year’s academic theme, nearly taking the academic aspect out of it entirely. In the year since President Pollack announced “freedom of expression at Cornell” as our 2023-2024 mantra, we’ve seen all kinds of legal and illegal expression, including protests, vandalism, mass media coverage, hate speech and a death threat, all of which have culminated in the University’s new restrictive “interim expressive activity policy.” In the midst of this spectrum of expressive communication, the University, at the expense of its students, has focused wrongly on how to only enable or restrict the vocalization of ideas, rather than fostering the rational creation of them. As the father of rational philosophy, Immanuel Kant posited, the freedom of expression is fundamentally “the freedom to use one’s reason publicly at every point.” If our school doesn’t dedicate resources to teaching how to reason, how to think critically and how to communicate these ideas, then our supposed “theme year” is merely empty rhetoric and falls drastically short of its high-minded philosophical ideals. Thinking and communicating critically are aspects of education that Cornell can and should do better in. 

This isn’t merely my opinion — it’s also a statistically significant observation across the nation and in our University. According to a recent report by the American Association of Universities and Colleges, college graduates enter the workforce underperforming expectations for critical thinking to the tune of 21 percent. Anecdotally for our University, one of my professors, Christopher Barrett, tells a story from his time as assistant dean of the SC Johnson School of Business. According to would-be employers, he said, Cornell graduates score off the charts in technical skills and work ethic. Despite these attributes, our graduates lag behind their Ivy League peers in critical thinking and the communication of ideas and opinions. Hearing this story for the first time, I was shocked, but when I got to thinking it started to make a lot of sense.

Empirically, our inability to think and speak critically is something I think we can all observe in our lives and especially in the Cornell community. We struggle to communicate ideas in a way that presents our opinion, its reasoning and leaves room for others. Admittedly, in a world of ten-second sound bites and TikToks, this is a difficult thing to do. I see opinions and buzz words pasted on the sides of buildings all over campus, posted on instagram stories and violently inserted into conversations in a way that blurs the line between opinion and factual truth. Everyone seems to believe they are their own truth teller. More than that, people, myself included, fall victim to thinking that they hold a monopoly on truth. Contemporary philosophy tells us that the cornerstone of reasoned thought and expression, from Socrates to Hegel to Marx, is the dialogue between contradictory beliefs or, as some have called it, the dialectic. Somewhere along the line, though, our campus has lost the peaceful interaction of oppositional ideas in favor of knee-jerk reaction and tribalistic communication. 

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