March 1, 2024

BEARD | The Freedom to Think Critically

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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. 

It is my contention that part of this blame falls upon the University and thus Cornell has a duty to rectify this wrong. Our school has amplified the value of a STEM-based curriculum at the expense of a thorough liberal arts one. The College of Engineering only requires its students to take six liberal arts courses. That’s only 18 credits of reading and writing across four years. The Dyson School keeps most of its liberal arts or “ethics” classes in-house, teaching business ethics and writing in a business context rather than covering it through a classical academic lens. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for its part only mandates nine credits of communication based curriculum. On top of all this, incoming students are able to test out of at least one of their Freshman Writing Seminars, possibly the only course in which they are exposed to critical writing. The sum of these facts is a curriculum that in the realm of liberal arts, as defined by courses whose content is mainly writing and reading, is drastically deficient. 

So, if you’re like me, and you find this alarming, what should we expect the University to do? I’m not calling for a total overhaul of Cornell’s teaching methods. I don’t believe engineers should forgo all of their MATLAB and Python in favor of Sartré or Marcuse. I certainly wouldn’t want to entrust our country’s civil engineering projects to philosophers. That being said, there are a few tweaks that can be made to hopefully expose our students to a wider range of ideas and liberal arts skills. For one, students shouldn’t be able to test out of writing seminars. Written communication is important, and we’re largely not great at it. Secondly, each college should establish more distribution requirements associated with the humanities that should be taken in the College of Arts and Sciences. This way, students, such as our Dyson peers, will be exposed to ideas in a purer, non-contextual form. Lastly, to truly uphold our theme year, the University should focus more on the presentation of a marketplace of ideas through forums, guest lecturers and dialogue-based events rather than throwing their weight behind preventing student protesters from interrupting classes.

Freedom of expression and critical thinking go hand-in-hand. As the great academics have written over the years, you cannot have one without the other. Right now, with the help of a lacking curriculum and Cornell’s supposed “theme year,” what we have on campus is a fixation on thoughtless external expression. While the school can’t wholly prevent us from being bigoted, biased or ignorant, what it can do is allocate a proper focus on the other side of the coin. By academically emphasizing critical thinking and communication through tweaks to curriculum and programming, hopefully we students can find a way to re-engage in dialogue with the cornerstone of free expression and reasoned thought. If Cornell, our trustees and the University administrators truly care about the so-called “freedom of expression,” then they must first enshrine the freedom to think critically in our classrooms and lecture halls. 

Brenner Beard is a fourth year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. His fortnightly column Agree to Disagree is a collection of musings and opinions on campus and the Cornell community at large. He can be reached at [email protected]

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