One of the things that I learned as an undergraduate in the 1970s is that I wasn’t smart enough to major in philosophy.

In those days, philosophy was one of the smaller and more self-consciously exclusive departments at Princeton. They wanted only a few undergraduate majors and, as it turned out, I wasn’t one of them. I learned this by taking a course, Introduction to Metaphysics and Epistemology, in which it quickly became clear to me – and I’m sure my professor – that my thinking was not as well-honed as we might have wished. I slunk off to the English department, where I found a more comfortable kind of beauty.

My most important takeaway from that unsatisfactorily-completed philosophy course in the theory of knowledge, forty-something years later, is that we should all have a sense of genuine humility about whether we actually know what our instincts tell us is true. This has proven to be one of the greatest life lessons I learned in college, useful in every field, but in none more so than in human relations. I may not have been up to the philosophy department’s standards, but at least I learned something really important from them.

This morning’s New York Post has an oped from an undergraduate at Yale entitled Yale Gets a Fail. It’s the latest in a long string of articles that I have been reading about how coddled students are these days, with their fellow-students, teachers and administrators refusing to allow them to hear intellectual argumentation that might threaten the emotionally comforting progressive bubbles in which they’re ensconced. Just a few days ago I read another oped, this one in The Wall Street Journal, in which Heather MacDonald describes being shouted off a different campus for daring to question progressive pieties. Such stories are now legion.

One deeply unfortunate effect of our nation’s obsession – shared by many employers – with the rankings of colleges’ perceived prestige is that too many kids are being taught that because they are at Yale (or Princeton, or other high-ranking institution) they are entitled to the presumption that their instincts are special. Indeed, there’s a direct correlation between the prestige of a college and the extent to which its students and recent graduates are subtly – or not so subtly – encouraged to believe that they know better about … everything.

The important thing to too many students is not what they learned at Harvard, or what demonstrable skills they acquired there, but that they got in and were thereby marked as members of a sort of faux aristocracy. Lower ranking but still aspirational schools strive to instill this same arrogance, which is presumably meant to be taken as a mark of the success (and therefore prestige!) of the institution.

Humility, intellectual or otherwise, is off the syllabus, replaced by now-mandatory courses in identity politics and, though this goes unspoken, a smug understanding of the benefits of having the attended ‘right’ schools and holding the ‘right’ (er, ’correct’) views about ‘social justice’. Those are the tickets, students think, to a golden future.

But what do they actually know? Much less than they think they do.

M.H. Johnston


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