Five Yale professors were among the over two dozen signatories of a letter advising college students nationwide to think for themselves, engage in debate and beware the “tyranny of public opinion.”
The letter was published online by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, a Princeton University initiative dedicated to examining “enduring questions” in American constitutional law and Western political thought. The program published a letter offering ideas and advice on Aug. 29, encouraging students at and beyond Princeton to question dominant narratives and avoid groupthink.
The Yale faculty members who signed the letter were psychology professor Paul Bloom, professor of social and natural science Nicholas Christakis, history professor Carlos Eire GRD ’79, computer science professor David Gelernter ’76 and Spanish professor Noël Valis.
“Don’t be tyrannized by public opinion,” the letter reads. “Don’t get trapped in an echo chamber. Whether you in the end reject or embrace a view, make sure you decide where you stand by critically assessing the arguments for the competing positions.”
Princeton professor and Director of the James Madison Program Robert George reached out to professors from Princeton, Yale and Harvard, asking if they would like to sign the letter, according to Valis.
Valis said that she signed it because she strongly believes in the importance of free speech, civil discourse and open-mindedness.
“When we close our minds to other opinions and views of the world, we make the world infinitely smaller and grayer, and we being to lose the sense of being connected to others,” she said.
Eire said he was not sure how signatories were chosen, but speculated that George had probably heard of him from a former student who is now at Princeton.
He said that while George was in charge of collecting signatures, the letter was drafted collectively, with input from several of its signers. Like Valis, he said he chose to participate because the issues addressed in the letter are of great personal concern.
Eire, who is originally from Cuba, said the letter’s message resonated with him because of his experiences living in a totalitarian communist country where people who disagreed with the “ruling elite” would be punished. He also does research on the history of the Spanish Inquisition, and said he knows “how to spot Big Brother.”
“For someone who has lived in a totalitarian state, it is very easy to recognize groupthink and censorship and intolerance,” he said. “For most Americans, it seems to be difficult.”
Over his four decades in academia, Eire said, he has seen the culture of higher education change. He added that in recent years he has become worried about the intolerance and conformity he notices on campuses, citing language regulation and oversensitivity around microaggressions.
While he does not think the prevalence of conformity at Yale is as worrisome as that at other colleges, Eire said he is still concerned.
“Our history is being carefully rewritten through groupthink,” Eire said. “Certain names and images have to be expunged. This is exactly what Orwell depicts in 1984: control of thought, control of language, the rewriting of history.”
In the days since the letter’s publication, Eire said reactions have been mixed. He noted that George said he has received thank you notes, some from university presidents. Still, Eire and other signatories were the recipients of a letter from a student’s parent that he described as insulting and full of incorrect assumptions about the intentions of the signing faculty members.
According to Eire, the advice letter and its content are a direct response to the current political climate. He said he does not know of any previous letters published by the program, which was founded in 2000.
“In today’s climate, it’s all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture,” states the letter. “The danger any student — or faculty member — faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink.”
The James Madison Program is part of the Department of Politics at Princeton University.
Rachel Treisman | firstname.lastname@example.org | @