Next time you start to turn away from an opinion you find hard to hear, pause and listen; take a deep breath and test your critical-thinking skills
The two newspapers on my desk—The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times—have won more than 150 Pulitzer prizes in total, and their journalistic bona fides are beyond dispute.
In some respects, the comparison ends there. If you follow current events or political controversies—and there are certainly many of both—you’ll find diametrically opposed views of those issues on the newspapers’ editorial pages.
Such diversity of opinion can strengthen you and also democracy.
But if you’re like most people, you gravitate toward one view or the other, seeking the editorial opinion of the Times or the Journal, but not both. That is a missed opportunity to learn and think critically, and understanding why is relevant to our mission at the university.
The Laws of the Regents, which govern the University of Colorado system, clearly articulate this mission. Specifically, the laws state that every member of the university community, regents, administrators, faculty, staff and students have a duty to “protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas.”
The regent laws continue:
The University of Colorado is an institution of higher education, and its campuses are devoted to the pursuit of learning and the advancement of knowledge through the free exchange of ideas. The free exchange of ideas includes not only the right to speak, but the right to listen.
Citizens have a right to listen. We also a responsibility to listen, particularly to those with whom we disagree. Universities are where we learn how to listen most effectively—with discernment and reason.
A liberal-arts education conveys skills in critical thinking. Like any physical ability, critical-thinking skills must be used. When used, they strengthen. When neglected, they atrophy.
A liberal-arts education conveys skills in critical thinking. Like any physical ability, critical-thinking skills must be used. When used, they strengthen. When neglected, they atrophy."
Honing one’s critical thinking is like training one’s muscles. If you challenge them with heavier weights, you get strong. If you consistently pick up only the lightest weights, you stay weak.
This brings us back to the editorial pages. If you listen only to those opinions that confirm your own, you become the cognitive equivalent of a couch potato. Sure, the easy route is comfortable. But absorbing only those views that buttress yours perpetrates “confirmation bias,” which is the tendency to seek information or opinions that reinforce those you already hold. This yields feeble civic discourse, and flabby thinking.
People who live in echo chambers don’t discuss issues; they hurl prefabricated talking points at each other. They do not engage in the reasonable but “uninhibited, robust and wide-open debate” that, the U.S. Supreme Court famously said, fortifies our society. In thus shirking their civic duty, they weaken our democracy.
Being a responsible citizen is hard. The world is complex. Evidence can point in multiple directions. Logic that might seem sound can be faulty when examined more critically. Reasonable people of good faith disagree.
If you feel the warm glow of concurrence with Times editorials and read only them, you fail to challenge yourself the way you should, as a scholar and a citizen entrusted with the health of our democracy. Pick up The Wall Street Journal, read it, and challenge yourself to think critically about why you disagree, or agree, with their opinions.
Some will demur, arguing that some speech should not be heard because some arguments are based on falsehoods. There has always been deficient and misleading speech, but the answer to bad speech is not suppression. The answer—as the Supreme Court also said—should be “more speech,” better speech, enlightened speech, which depends on critical thought.
These points reflect the First Amendment and our first principles. So next time you start to turn away from an opinion you find hard to hear, pause and listen. Take a deep breath and test your critical-thinking skills. You might emerge with your view unchanged. But you will be stronger, your thoughts clearer, and we’ll have a more perfect union.
James W.C. White is interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.