It’s now mid-September, which means that some 19 million students are back in college. As the school year gets going, I’ve been thinking about how the campuses to which these young people have returned are marked by the country’s larger problems: extreme polarization and a weakening of trust.
Older generations have probably always felt distressed over what the youngsters were up to, but today the ideological battles over college have grown feverish. Nor are just outsiders worried; college students themselves are concerned. A 2021 poll found that over half of college students refrained from expressing their views out of fear — effectively self-censoring in the one place they’re supposed to be free to share their thoughts. A more recent survey taken at the University of Wisconsin found the same result. The numbers aren’t that different between liberal- and conservative-leaning students, either.
As someone who’s spent time on university campuses as an undergrad, a law student, and most recently a fellow at Harvard, I know that the hyperbolic headlines are not always true, that college students are some of the most thoughtful and imaginative young citizens in the country. However, I also know that what allowed me, a working-class kid, to get a great education and transcend society’s expectations was the liberal attitude of the universities I attended. It is this attitude that is under attack today and if rolled back, will harm minority and first-generation students the most.
“Liberal” here refers not to the political ideology but to the value system of openness to different perspectives. It is a neutral framework that regards as positive — rather than scary — an intellectually diverse conversation, where minority views are represented. It is color-blind and ideologically neutral. As a matter of principle, liberalism allows and even encourages people who historically did not have power to gain the intellectual tools to emancipate themselves — a feature that distinguishes it from all other philosophies of power.
Through the freedoms of conscience and speech, individuals can learn and express themselves without fear of being harmed. One thinks of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s expert usage of the freedoms of assembly and protest to pressure the government to pass civil rights legislation. Liberalism as set forth in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution creates such a structure of potential freedom — and dissent — that it may be the only philosophical framework to make room for its own enemies. Ultimately, liberalism is meant to empower the individual against both the mob and the established bureaucracy.
What is creeping up today is the opposite of this — anti-liberalism, an authoritarian mindset that ends discussions before they begin and is more interested in superficial agreement than in intelligent dissent. Anti-liberalism is also anti-intellectual, seeking to unilaterally limit what everyone else is allowed to think. This is corrosive, especially for minorities. In fact, what I’ve found is that upholding the liberal idea for everyone is also a key to getting a great education.
I have some ideas for how students can break free of ideological controversies on campus and get the most out of their education. These ideas apply doubly to students who, at one point or another, would not have been able to attend college in America.
First, seek out thinkers and authors you disagree with. This may sound trite, but your future self will thank you when it can draw upon a truly diverse range of insights. If you’re a conservative, read bell hooks. If you’re a libertarian, don’t go to Ayn Rand — go to Karl Marx. If you already like socialism, try Milton Friedman. Exploring ideas and perspectives that radically differ from your own allows you to break your preconceived notions. Being challenged, even provoked, will lead to greater critical thinking skills and a deeper mode of learning.
Second, to quote the late Christopher Hitchens: Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus. The consensus could be wrong, and it often is. Under social pressures intensified by social media, students become conformists, not wanting to be seen as unfriendly if they express their true views. This impoverishes their own education and the education of everyone around them. Only by constantly questioning what everyone else takes for granted can you refine your own learning and take those infinite baby steps toward the truth.
Third, be willing to respectfully disagree with any viewpoint or argument you find pernicious or worth disagreeing over — but be open to the possibility that you might be wrong. This latter point is especially important. Arrogance and conceit are usually signs of intellectual insecurity, and your right to express your thoughts is tied to your duty to listen when someone responds.
Fourth, make friends with people who don’t exactly share your politics. In college, my freshman roommate was a militant atheist. I believed in God. We had a bunk bed and many fierce intellectual disagreements. Lo and behold, we’re friends still 15 years later. Despite, or maybe because of, our differences, we were able to genuinely challenge each other, and both of us valued our intellectual exchanges. Rethinking your assumptions and making friends with people who don’t always share your politics will let you forge bonds that go deeper than partisan or ideological lines.
Fifth, try to view others under the same charitable light you would want them to view you. This is the intellectual golden rule. Before you get upset by someone’s arguments or ideas, take a step back. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Unless they’ve specifically said something demonstrably false or malicious, try to see their angle. It doesn’t mean you agree; it means you’re exhibiting a generosity of spirit that will help you get at the truth and set a standard for the community around you. If necessary, ask questions to clarify, recalling the method of the first great educator, Socrates, who learned through asking questions.
Sixth, you can duel with historical thinkers only on their own turf. There certainly needs to be more diversity on the syllabus, with many more women, minorities, and international voices represented, but the classics are still a powerful tool. Rather than removing all the “dead white men” from the reading list, see if you can engage with them. Refute them. Rebut them. More importantly, try to learn from them. See what Homer and Erasmus were about, what arguments Plato and John Stuart Mill made. It may be that this helps you see other questions and opens new lines of investigation. The dead white men may even help you sharpen your ideas. In a sense, they may become your allies.
The liberal tradition places no one above critique — so read these long-deceased European thinkers and challenge them on their own terms. Read them alongside the multicultural new voices enlivening college syllabuses across America. Read them next to the great thinkers from Islamic, Chinese, and other civilizations, and indulge in the great questions that every culture and people have asked. For those without power historically, only the widest possible door to let in knowledge should be constructed. Internalize diverse ideas and arguments and then talk back. College affords you the opportunity to annex all the wisdom of the past. Don’t surrender it preemptively.
Finally, and this is crucial, you can and should cultivate a spirit of curious engagement, almost of playfulness toward learning. There should be times when it doesn’t even feel like work but is pure joy. You are beginning your real education, and it’s about more than just schooling. It’s about the character into which you will grow — the values you’ll pass on. Along the way, remember to let down the ladder for those coming up.
The future of American democracy will depend on whether the liberal idea is validated or vitiated by the next generation. Young people will either become the standard-bearers of pluralistic liberalism or its gravediggers. Despite the raging controversies, I have faith they’ll succeed.
Omer Aziz, the author of “Brown Boy: A Memoir,” was a 2022-23 Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard.