Epistemological Panic, or Thinking for Yourself

I have been a college teacher for some of the happiest years of my life. When I tell people what I do for a living, what I really do, I say I teach people to think for themselves. It’s still a wonderful way to make a living, but over time I have begun wondering whether I have been fooling myself. I could just be teaching them to think like me, or how to package the conventional wisdoms that they have scraped off the Internet. I find myself wondering, therefore, what it really means to think for yourself, what it means for teachers, for students, and for a society that tells itself it is free. Thinking for yourself has never been easy, but the question of whether it is still possible at all is of some moment. The key ideals of liberal democracy — moral independence and intellectual autonomy — depend on it, and my students will not have much experience of either if they end up living in a culture where all of their political and cultural opinions must express tribal allegiance to one of two partisan alternatives; where they live in communities so segregated by education, class, and race that they never encounter a challenge to their tribe’s received ideas, or in a society where the wells of information are so polluted that pretty well everything they read is “fake news.”  Thinking for yourself need not require every thought to be yours and yours alone. Originality is not the goal, but the autonomous and authentic choice of your deepest convictions certainly is, and you are unlikely to make authentic choices of belief unless you can learn to wrestle free from the call of the tribe and the peddlers of disinformation and reach that moment of stillness when you actually

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