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How to think, not what to think

By June 14, 2022No Comments

Say the wrong word and you are vanished

For thirty-five years, I was professor of Psychology at a large, public university. I taught generations of students, worked with scores of academic colleagues and was deeply committed to the mission of the university as a thriving center of education, necessary to produce citizens of a democracy. I so thrived in that milieu that I simply decided, after all my prior studies were completed, never to leave, or relinquish my devotion to lifelong learning and teaching, to the intellectual stimulation of debate, discussion, and exciting new ideas.

In fact, after retirement, I moved right into other teaching opportunities, including several years at the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica, where I continued to work in one of my main areas of expertise, gender studies, teaching such courses as Gender and Peace, Gender and Conflict resolution, with a particular focus on the differential effect of climate change, war and other international issues on women and girls. In my time, those were legitimate issues to be studied and researched and I, along with feminist colleagues, had pioneered many of them. I was an acknowledged and much sought-after expert.

I took for granted the generative atmosphere that both permitted and protected this kind of exhilarating inquiry. All of us did. It was the air we breathed, the life we lived. I never thought that there might come a day when we were cut off from our intellectual lifeblood, not permitted our inquiry, our debate and discussion and, in a complete 180-degree turn, instead prohibited all forms of intellectual sustenance.

Until that day arrived. And I am here to report that it has. All my questions have melded into new ones. Why can’t we disagree, debate, discuss anymore? Why can’t we base our knowledge in fact? How has it happened in the very centers of learning that even questions have been banned? That even asking this question about questioning is grounds for censure and shaming. And why indeed have censure and shaming replaced research and healthy debate?

Without academic freedom, there is no such thing as a university. Why? Because the university is based in the necessity to question, research, discuss, do more research, including in the mental arena, and then to continue to question and question and question. In fact, it might even be said that the essence of education is learning how to ask better and better questions. How to think, not what to think.

Yes, the thought police have occupied American universities and are coming for us all. Not only criticizing, but even thinking about, larger systems and structures such as racism, misogyny and homophobia are no longer permitted in the classroom, the laboratory or the journals. New ideas must be accepted as religious doctrine, must not be questioned. Once questions were breath itself; now we are all suffocating instead. Education has been deconstructed, regulated and politicized. Speech is no longer free, but very heavily taxed to the point of bankruptcy of the speaker. Say the wrong word and you are vanished, your entire career discredited.

Students are protected from, rather than exposed to, controversial ideas lest their sensibilities be offended, their feelings “triggered.” Feelings have come to be privileged over facts, diatribes over research, name-calling over debate. Then there are those who lose their very positions or well-earned honors as a consequence of raising issues deemed unspeakable by those who have the power to decide such matters.

That power is in the hands of a very few who are deemed “politically correct” according to today’s trends in the arena of “feeling” power. No questions can be asked that hurt their feelings. Inquiry is named bigotry. Thought is replaced by slogans and American education turns into preparation of students, dare I say, to be sheep, to be assembly line cutouts, putting their heads down and questioning nothing, living the illusion of safety. Keeping their jobs and not endangering their futures.

Sadly, the same is so of those trained and paid to teach them, to enable and encourage inquiry, to search for truth in a world of half-truths and non-truths. The faculty. This bothers me most of all because these are my academic sisters and brothers and many of them have turned their backs on truth and, thus, turned their backs on me. The very professors who are supposed to think for themselves are afraid to do so, afraid of losing their paychecks. The designated thinkers have been transformed into the newly closeted.

Instead, thought is replaced by slogans and chants, curiosity by certitude, inquiry by silence. I consider this situation on our nation’s campuses to be one of the serious moral failures of our times. Courage and intellect are apparently unrelated even at the correlational level. Feminists are being vilified; women sacrificed. And anti-racism thought prohibited. Yes, thought itself is now prohibited at our centers of thinking. The mission of a university, previously to expose students to new ideas, has changed direction and now is to protect these same students from ideas.

Yet we who ask the questions, who have always asked the questions, who have dedicated ourselves to those questions and used them to change the world – the feminists, the psychologists and philosophers, the justice warriors, the gay and lesbian advocates, are today being silenced and punished for speaking on behalf of our own ideas. This is a silence that is rooted in our universities and has taken many of our most brilliant minds and our kindest hearts in its wake, resembling McCarthyism more than progressivism.

Only a few courageous souls have the courage to speak out and when they do, punishment is swift and unrelenting. There is no room for explanation or reprieve. Academic freedom is dying, one silenced voice at a time based not in science, but in a philosophical position that refuses rebuttal. Normally I like to say that there are at least three sides to every issue. In contemporary academia, there is now only one. And that is the side of aggression, censorship and enforced silence. Fear fills the classrooms, silence the halls.

Personally, I choose to risk the dual dangers of aggression and retribution rather than be silenced, rather than have 35 years of distinguished research and writing deemed hate speech. I am not the danger. Silence is. It’s a safe bet that anyone seeking to limit free speech is not on the right side of the issues. I pray that enough of my colleagues find their voices and their courage, that they awake to dangerous direction in which we are moving before it is too late to turn back. And it is almost too late.

This article was originally published in Meer.

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychologist, author and teacher. She is well-known as a speaker, workshop leader, human rights advocate and a public intellectual.