There is a widely believed myth that young people — especially college students — are “natural rebels” and “nonconformists.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

I have taught thousands of young men and women in my 37 years as a professor at Princeton. The vast majority (although there are notable exceptions) are the opposite of free-thinking nonconformists. Young people tend more or less uncritically to subscribe to the dominant beliefs on their campuses and among their peers. They avoid being out of step. They believe what they think they are supposed to believe, what people who are regarded in their communities as “smart” and “sophisticated” believe. After all, they themselves want to be — and to be regarded as being — smart and sophisticated.

The desire among young people for acceptance, which, truth be told, is obvious, manifests itself on multiple levels. Pause for a second to consider the sense of embarrassment and even dread a typical teenager feels when he realizes that the sneakers he’s wearing are not the ones all his friends are wearing. Horrors!

Such fear of being out of step is dramatically amplified on college campuses, where what has come to be known as “woke” ideology is dominant and seems every day to become more extreme. Woke ideologues and activists are aware of young people’s deep desire not to be outliers and they do not hesitate to take full advantage of it. Of course, they don’t acknowledge that they are doing anything like that, for the simple reason that they massively benefit from the pretense that conformity to ideological fashion has nothing to do with their success.

Perspective: The tables can still be turned on the marriage debate

Ideologues and activists have developed clever techniques for spreading their ideas and pressuring students to conform to them — or at least to speak and act as if they are fully on board with them. For example, woke activists in leadership positions in clubs and organizations, from the ballet club to the volleyball team, post negative messages about dissenters (e.g. people who decline to “state their pronouns” or wear rainbow insignia on their costumes or uniforms) on social media sites, and even threaten to harm them when they apply to graduate programs in their academic fields or for jobs.

Ultimately, the intimidation tactics create a miserable environment for any student who refuses to toe the line by publicly offering some sort of affirmation of the ideological dogma du jour. This culture of fear prompts students to self-censor both in and outside of the classroom — something toxic to the educational enterprise. 

Genuine independence of mind is not unheard of among the young, but it is the exception rather than the rule.

And it’s not just fellow students who collaborate in creating a climate of fear for the sake of pressuring potential dissenters into conformity. Many universities themselves advance woke ideology through institutional mechanisms of various sorts. For example, the college experience begins at many institutions with indoctrination sessions disguised as “freshman orientation” programs, during which new students are bombarded with presentations designed to make clear to them what the party line is on questions of race, class and, especially, sexuality.

Almost never do these programs so much as acknowledge the existence of competing ideas — traditional or conservative views about sexuality and sexual morality, for example — and if such ideas are mentioned, then they are represented in a disparaging way or intentionally mischaracterized. Students are left in no doubt about what they must believe — or at least pretend to believe — if they are to “fit in.” There are certain beliefs they are taught they must accept if they themselves wish to be accepted.

Even worse: Many universities lack meaningful formal commitments to free speech, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom that would provide students with mechanisms for legal recourse when they are discriminated against for their dissent or sanctioned or deprived of opportunities for expressing dissenting ideas. Indeed, at some universities efforts are made to discredit freedom of thought, inquiry and expression as “right-wing tropes.”

You read that last sentence correctly: The basic freedom to think for oneself and speak one’s mind — a freedom that not long ago people on the liberal side of the political divide prided themselves on holding as sacrosanct — is now derided as “right wing.”

Perspective: Performing the rituals of a religion does not make you a member of that faith

Don’t get me wrong: Genuine independence of mind is not unheard of among the young, but it is the exception rather than the rule. Standing up to the ideologues and the various university bureaucracies and bureaucrats whose job it is to promote woke orthodoxy on campus takes courage. It requires a willingness to endure the opprobrium that comes with being known as a campus dissenter. And when in human history have courage and the willingness to endure opprobrium been in ample supply?

Nor are these virtues much in evidence among the adults — especially faculty members — who should be modeling them for students.

There is one thing all professors can and should do — though even this takes a bit of courage these days — that is, make clear in writing (on the course syllabus, for example) that students in their classes are permitted and, indeed, encouraged to think for themselves and speak their minds, even when their views dramatically contradict campus orthodoxies. Let students know that free-thinking and nonconformity are welcome in your classes and will certainly not be punished.

Professors rightly insist on civility in class discussions. Students shouldn’t be allowed to hurl epithets at each other or call each other names. They should be told that they are to do business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse — a currency consisting of reasons, evidence and arguments. But they should also be assured that there will be no ideological litmus tests and no policing of language of the sort that forces students to accept the terms of discussion (such as “birthing people” rather than “pregnant women”) that function as tools of ideologies they do not accept.

Young people are not natural rebels or nonconformists. Quite the reverse. But professors (and parents and other supporters) can help them become truly independent thinkers — people who are not at the mercy of intellectual fads and fashions, genuine truth-seekers and truth-speakers — by modeling and encouraging our young men and women to think deeply, think critically (including self-critically) and think for themselves.  

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.