August 13, 2007

Critical Thinking at the University: The Failure of BYU

University-level education is supposed to be about more than just getting a job after graduation; it is supposed to be an opportunity to learn how to think effectively. Regardless of the academic discipline, students learn the history of their chosen field, recent developments in the area, and current controversies. And yet, most fields of study also extol the virtues of critical thinking. This is what makes university education such a potent friend to the reality-based community. Sadly, there are exceptions, as some universities have abandoned this noble goal in pursuit of ancient superstition.

I recall my college years with fondness as a time of intense self-reflection, wide ranging interpersonal experience, identity development, and discovery. In every subject, the professors who made an impression were those who challenged my preconceptions and encouraged critical thinking. Even in religion courses (yes, I took two courses in religion), nothing was accepted at face value. Students were pushed to consider how we know what we think we know. We learned that asking the right questions was often more valuable than finding an answer.

I credit these experiences as going a long way toward making me who I am today. I suppose this is why I found this article about Brigham Young University (BYU) by Jon Adams so distressing. I join Adams in feeling sorry for the students at BYU. "They are missing out on the marketplace of ideas other universities enjoy."

Religiously-oriented universities do not have to make this mistake. I attended one, and I know that freethought and skepticism can flourish even in such environments. It must also be acknowledged that BYU is no Liberty University. In discussing the legacy of homophobia at BYU, Adams notes that change is possible and that there is some cause for optimism. Still, I think the real tragedy is that BYU often receives praise from the Mormon community precisely because of how it deprives its students of the full university experience.

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