The Illusion of Independent Thinking

In John G. West’s book of a decade ago, Darwin Day in America, in which he sketches the influence of Darwinian-inspired materialist thinking on a range of subjects, he has a striking chapter showing how all too many academics, teachers, and their supporters in the media tolerate no questioning about any part of evolutionary theory—even by fellow scholars in biology and related fields and even when it is strictly on the grounds of careful scientific analysis. Instead, they twist their views, claim they are religious fundamentalists, and demonize them. When sociologist Mark Regnerus’s careful, thorough study several years ago suggested—despite its being cautious about unmeasured and sweeping conclusions—that children reared in households led by same-sex partners could suffer deleterious effects in adulthood, he was savaged and attempts were made to drive him out of his academic position. Problems in America’s minority communities are, as far as mainstream opinion is concerned, due simply to racism and anyone who tries to make a strong public case that the causes are largely to be found within the communities themselves is sure to be pilloried from almost every quarter.

Currently on the American left and among many college students formed by their professors, it has become almost sine qua non that America is an almost hopelessly racist, sexist, homophobic society and that it has been and continues to be an oppressive and destructive force in the world. There is hardly any effort at serious analysis of these claims or even an examination of history (for example, a comparison of the racial situation today with what it was in the Jim Crow South)—or for that matter, even an attempt to define the terms that are being tossed about. We’ve witnessed a recent walk-out of students at all levels from American school classrooms to push for gun control after the Florida school massacre, but the young people involved and the adults helping—and maybe motivating—them to do this seem closed to considering the socio-moral-cultural causes behind such violence. We hear regularly about “conservative” speakers being shut down on university campuses and how students have to be protected from being exposed to any ideas that they might find offensive.

In case one thinks that closing off one’s mind to competing views, avoiding serious examination of questions, and almost reflexively going along with the crowd is exclusively a feature of the left, we find people elsewhere on the politico-economic spectrum who are too ready to be dismissive of views that go against the grain of their own thinking. For example, there are those attached to a certain version of “free market economics” (grounded in classical liberalism) who are quick to say that people who deviate at all from their perspective—say, in questioning outright free trade—are simply naïve about economics (the fervor that some people bring to their preferred economic theories is striking).

Obviously, these are just a few examples—there are literally countless more—of groupthink. That is, going along with conventional thinking or one could say even less flatteringly “following the crowd,” of the routine practice of coming to hard conclusions without even attempting to conduct adequate analysis or research, and of intolerantly dismissing those who challenge—even with tightly reasoned arguments and piles of evidence—the intellectual shibboleths and ideological fashions of the day.

The great irony in all this is that the people—whether they be students, activists of one stripe or another, public figures, or scholars (who have no excuse for their behavior)—who have done nothing but follow along, view themselves as the independent thinkers. The people who aren’t with them are the ignorant ones, the unenlightened—the “Neanderthals”—held down by the likes of religion, traditional morality, passé thinking, or whatever. They think that the ruling beliefs of the day are not subject to being challenged. Only those ideas of the past should be questioned because they believe—in truly gnostic fashion—that only modern-day man is truly enlightened (especially those who have the “right” socio-politico-economic understanding). That enlightenment supposedly comes from some vague notion of scientific knowledge uncritically applied to every other area of thought and endeavor. More likely perhaps, they just don’t want to be challenged—revealing, of course, a basic insecurity about the validity of their beliefs that they just routinely brush aside. The facts don’t make a difference, however, because, after all, we all know that this is what we should believe. Anti-intellectualism abounds—especially among those who are supposed to be the intellectual leaders or leaders-in-formation in American society.

Why is this the age of followers and conformists, especially for those who should truly be independent thinkers? For students and young people, poor education is a big factor. We are an over-schooled but massively undereducated nation. The consequences of the century-long odyssey of decimating the liberal arts—the tradition of which involved rigorous intellectual formation, equipping students with the proper tools to shape inquiring minds with the aim of knowing truth—are evident for all to see. Most of the campuses are more intolerant and closed to serious academic debate than they were even in the turbulent 1960s, the era of the “student rebellion.” To a large degree, of course, this is because of the poor tutelage they receive from the scholars like West speaks of who don’t know what true scholarship requires. This isn’t anything new for these students when they come to college because, as the late John Schmitt wrote as far back as three decades ago, from their earliest years in school students have implicitly conveyed to them the attitude that reality—truth—doesn’t exist independently of the mind or, if it does, it cannot be known with certainty anyway (in other words, they are in effect forged in Kantianism). As a result, he said, they are easily swept along by the predominant cultural trends. As Professor David Lowenthal said at the same time, the evisceration of the liberal arts has substituted the predominance of the emotions for the intellect and made young people particularly prone to vague moralistic appeals. So, should we be surprised that many students are reflexively clamoring for gun control after the Florida school massacre?

While the intellectual formation of youth is so weak, let’s not forget the lack of general moral formation. That used to be part of what a liberal arts education aided in as well. Mostly, however, the family and the churches conducted moral training. Yet the crisis both institutions have experienced over many years has undermined their effectiveness.

In addition to emotions crowding out reason in people’s judgments, let’s not ignore the effects of pop psychology—and secular psychology generally. The culture of psychologism has made the emotions the driving force. The line from Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke with their elevating of the passions over all else has led directly to what we have today.

The hold of ideology is another factor, of course. Although the different versions of liberalism historically haven’t had the tight, systematic, consistent set of precepts of, say, orthodox Marxism (even while today’s leftism distinctly betrays a vulgarized Marxism, especially cultural Marxism), it now features increasingly rigid and uncompromising positions. As with all ideology, reasoned discourse is displaced by the embracing of unquestioned dogmatism. In politics, one sees this increasingly with the Democratic Party, which is now a party of the hard left that brooks hardly any dissent on the “culture wars” questions on which the balance of Western and American civilization hinge.

As far as the intelligentsia goes, much like upwardly mobile Democratic Party politicians, one can’t undersell the factor of pure opportunism. One goes along and conforms his views for the sake of advancing or, especially in the case of most of academia, just getting his foot in the door. Over time, once someone has surrendered his right to think for himself he tends to become a true believer. We also have to remember another thing that makes the intelligentsia think they always have the answers even when they obviously don’t. That’s the moral failing that they are especially prone to: pride. This pride explains why they are intolerant toward—and want to suppress and even persecute—those who disagree with them.

There is one, perhaps the most basic, factor driving most of this. That’s the contemporary exultation of the autonomous self. People think that they are the makers of their own destiny, responsible only to themselves, the sole shapers of the standards they are going to live by. They believe there is no higher moral law, that religion is irrelevant, and they are disdainful of traditional—even age-old—practices and norms. This autonomy is an illusion. In place of true standards, people actually are embracing what amount to the standards of the crowd—all the time believing that they are their own persons. That’s simply because man needs some standards and norms to live by. Instead of the true ones, “autonomous man” embraces what prevailing opinion or a certain part of it tells him. He thinks he’s being independent because he’s going against conventional wisdom and following “enlightened” thinking, but it’s really conventional wisdom of a sort that he follows—a “conventional wisdom” which is usually hardly wisdom at all and may even fly in the face of all the obvious realities.

So, the self-proclaimed independent thinkers of today—especially from our “thinking” and influential classes—are anything but that. They are really consummate followers—and heading off the cliff. Unfortunately, because they are so well positioned they aim to take everyone else with them.

Stephen M. Krason


Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His latest book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.