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Education in a Post-Truth Era

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As an incoming freshman excited to be joining the Stanford community, I have been frequently reading The Stanford Daily. Earlier this summer, I came across a piece by the Editorial Board reaffirming the newspaper’s “commitment to First Amendment principles” in the face of increasing criticism of the media by Donald Trump. The Daily argues that the President’s “claims of so-called ‘fake news’ undermine the very existence of a free press, eroding the credibility of reporting” and thereby threaten the systems that are fundamental to our liberal democracy.

While I agree with The Daily, I believe we must also recognize that the rhetoric of the Trump administration and the alt-right is not the only present threat to free speech. For as the right is undermining free speech in the media, the left is doing the same in academia.

Like the media, the classroom should be a place where differing perspectives, debate and reason collide to produce an educated citizenry. In this vein, the goal of any educational institution should be to teach people how to think, not what to think, by showing students how to logically evaluate arguments and evidence, exposing them to a variety of perspectives and allowing them to formulate their own opinions. When only a single perspective is offered, and free expression of dissenting opinions is suppressed, any distinction between education and indoctrination is lost. As I learned in high school, this is an all too common trend in the academic community, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

Instead of assigning readings that provide diverse opinions and fostering an environment that allowed for spirited but civil discourse, my teachers exposed us only to perspectives that were sanctioned by the extreme political left. Some even candidly explained that to offer alternatives would promote oppression, for even the mere discussion of divergent opinions was considered dangerous and tantamount to inviting hate speech into the classroom.

This intolerance of differing ideas led to intolerance of anyone who dared express them. Instead of debating the quality of arguments, students were taught to personally attack those with whom they disagreed, as Trump does. Consequently, any disagreement in class discussions was quickly quelled, as students invariably resorted to outrage and ad hominem to silence others. Whenever I argued a point contrary to the accepted one, for example, my arguments were not dismissed on their merit but rather on my gender and the color of my skin. “Of course you believe that. You’re a white man,” I was told time and time again, with one teacher even telling me that the best thing I could do was to say nothing and, metaphorically, “pass the mic.”

By refusing to do so, I came to realize that it was a vocal minority that was silencing the dissent of many, for I was repeatedly thanked privately by my fellow students for speaking up when they had not for fear of being socially ostracized and verbally attacked. As a result of their fear, “discussions” became nothing more than students either quoting the teacher in agreement or sitting in silence.

Our experience is far from unique. A survey by the Heterodox Academy found that half of surveyed college students did not feel that their university presented a diversity of viewpoints and were reluctant to discuss controversial issues for fear that their fellow students would criticize them.

The prevalence of this problem has forced me to ask: Will it be different here? The commitment by The Stanford Daily gives me hope that, though this fear and hatred of free speech may have taken hold in the highest seats of government and in many classrooms throughout America, Stanford will be different.

Time will tell.

Contact Willoughby Winograd at willjw ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Willoughby J. Winograd is an undergraduate at Stanford University, studying public policy and applied ethics. At Stanford, he is an op-ed columnist for "The Stanford Daily," an independent, student-run newspaper, and a committee member for the Associated Students of Stanford University. He has been an ethical vegan for all his life, and is deeply committed to the rights of both humans and animals. In accordance with this, he is currently in the process of writing a book, "Embracing the Anthropocene," which challenges the assumptions of environmental conservation, presenting the case for environmental protection guided by the rights of humans and animals, not biodiversity.