A College Student Who Seeks to Learn Rather Than to Teach

Surrounded by cultural pressures to dislike the “other,” one undergraduate marshals empathy and charity.

Reuters / Amr Dalsh

Last year, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued that recent conflicts at institutions of higher education are rooted in conflicting assessments of their telos, or core purpose.

Is it to seek truth or to advance social justice?

Those missions aren’t always at odds. But in Haidt’s view, they are presently coming into conflict often enough that the status quo is unmanageable. “Universities will have to choose, and be explicit about their choice, so that potential students and faculty recruits can make an informed choice,” he argued. “Universities that try to honor both will face increasing incoherence and internal conflict.”

Haidt’s argument came back to me when I received an email from an undergraduate science major at what she describes as a flagship state university. She is among the many Atlantic readers who have recently contributed thoughts about how Americans can live together in peace and prosperity despite our differences.

Her thoughts were shaped by the telos she has chosen on campus.

Some politically engaged college students are so certain in their convictions that they’re angry when classmates, speakers, or even professors express contrary views. But this one isn’t seeking to teach those around her so much as to learn about their beliefs.

As she tells it:

The question of understanding and coexisting with other viewpoints has been recent but all-consuming for me. I’m barely legal drinking age, the daughter of a self-identified queer woman and an immigrant, an only child of divorced parents, never stepped foot into a church, grew up on The Daily Show. I showed up on campus already knowing the general liberal “creed.”

Instead of shedding the shackles of a conservative upbringing, as many of my peers announce they're doing, I’ve been learning that my childhood was not common whatsoever. I don’t think it’s right to say that I’m going “backwards,” but it feels weird trying to genuinely understand religious/conservative views from a liberal background when most people I know so easily did the vice-versa (and changed ideologies because of it).

I’m not trying to change.

I just want to understand the 50+ percent of the population that had a different childhood than I did so I can stop imagining them as “evil, bigoted” strawmen.

That sort of search for new knowledge and enhanced understanding of others can be among the most enriching, rewarding parts of higher education. And as this student is discovering, the cultivation of charity, modesty, and empathy are necessary for success.

As she put it:

The other night I had a conversation with two friends – all of us liberal college students, but Friend 1 was from a “mixed” liberal/libertarian family, Friend 2 was from a conservative family, and then me. Friend 1 made the claim that whether or not someone is a good person is independent of political affiliation, but Friend 2 shied away from that notion.

I believe the discomfort from Friend 2 came from the word “good,” which she interpreted strictly as her definition of “good person.” I think the most helpful rephrase is that whether or not someone is being their idea of a good person is independent of their political affiliation. It’s still going to take work to understand why people behave, think, and vote the ways they do. But believing that everyone is striving to do good, and learning what their idea of “good” is and why, will make it easier. And from there it may be easier to live together. Like I said before, I’m still quite young, so my thoughts are most likely common knowledge at this point.

I would argue that conceiving of oneself as having a lot to learn about others, rather than as a possessor of moral clarity obligated to teach or shame the ignorant, is an increasingly uncommon approach for young people navigating their undergraduate years—and that some administrators and faculty do a disservice to college students, giving them the impression that all important moral questions are settled and apparent, such that their telos as undergrads is to get woke, seek converts, and punish heretics. Some undergraduates are going so far as to demand that the faculty at the pricey colleges they attend undergo mandatory instructional programs in “cultural competency,” as if students are called to enlighten not only their peers, but their teachers, too.

Universities ought to act justly;  professors ought to strive to be excellent teachers to all of their students; and it is my belief that both can be achieved without any sacrifice to social justice rightly understood. But as social-justice advocates continually broaden their demands, perversions of social justice begin to do damage, like the excesses of any ideology insufficiently checked by analytic rigor and diversity.

Haidt is right: One way to better check these excesses is to reaffirm that truth-seeking is the purpose of the university and should not be made subservient to other goods. And this undergraduate is similarly wise, I think, to see that learning is both her telos as a student and a check on her prejudices. For the young and inexperienced at life, a posture of curiosity, tolerance, and epistemic modesty is especially appropriate, because teenagers invariably evolve on countless particulars about how to see the world. Pressuring them to be more than learners in college risks preempting that progress.