“Columbia taught me how to think.” It baffles me whenever graduates of Columbia make this statement as they wistfully reflect on their college years. I do understand their sentiment. This school has indeed provided me ample opportunities to engage with texts and research studies critically. The effect that Columbia has on its graduates is life-changing, as shown by the changes in people’s aspirations and the quality of their conversations. It is remiss, however, to say that the education in this school is so life-changing that it teaches people how to think. Period.
In the natural sciences, schools teach that truth is sieved out only after it passes through repeated observation and experimentation in the scientific method. Even then, theories are subject to further hypothesis testing. When subsequent observations challenge previous findings, the scientist nobly retracts his claim. Based on this linear, methodical way of knowing, students believe that scientists are dispassionate, objective “saints in lab coats” that serve at the altar of truth.
The fact of the matter is that universities endorse only a limited set of ways of knowing. These intellectual habits are told to have “rigor” that minimizes bias and maximizes honesty. However, it is often forgotten that “intellectual rigor” is not some objective standard that falls from the sky, all divorced from human ambition. The knowledge that professors produce usually serves a motive other than the discovery of truth. They strive for the approval of their colleagues in peer-evaluated journals or superiors that will grant them tenure or additional funding. In the classroom, many students would prefer to reproduce the accepted answer than what they truly think is true, especially when their grade or recommendation letter is at stake. The type of truth that we aspire to is one that wins the approval of other academics, but not necessarily one that resonates with the rest of society.
Truth is rarely known linearly and objectively, unlike what many proponents of higher education often proclaim. Universities alone do not safeguard all knowledge and truth available to mankind. It is dangerous to believe that thought processes endorsed by colleges are the only avenues to absolute meaning in one’s life. Such belief would cause disparities in the worth of a person’s life based on his academic credentials. But this problem has already become a reality. It is common knowledge that the economic attainment of a person is severely limited without a college degree. The work, the thoughts and services produced by a person cannot be valued highly unless he holds a degree that certifies that he can think.
Before coming to Columbia, I often studied in the sobering reserves of Dartmouth’s Baker-Berry Library, which houses a mural of the famous Jose Clemente Orozco. One of the mural panels, “Gods of the Modern World,” never failed to wake me up from the dream of academia. Here, a skeleton gives birth to stillborn knowledge in the presence of other skeletons dressed in academic regalia. These figures yield to the bondage of old, sterile intellectual traditions, unable to save the world burning in flames.
As a young student and being far from a skeleton, I would tell myself that I am not guilty. I am not responsible for society’s bondage to academic credentials. But nevertheless, as a student who applied to and attends a school that prides itself in tradition, I am nevertheless part of the problem. I have also perpetuated the gratuitous confidence that people place in universities. We like to believe that all the solutions and undiscovered truths lie hidden in secular, westernized institutions that churn out stockpiles of research papers every year. The public’s incredible degree of faith in a college education blinds people from alternative forms of truth that cannot be always seen in an ivory tower.
I expect many people who invested so much in their university education to respond angrily to this column. You might still believe that human reason is the only method of unveiling the truth. You say that our society will fall into disrepair without the authority of academics whose degrees prove their infallible intelligence. I challenge you to reconsider. Despite their progress made in producing useful knowledge, our universities have yet to discover truth that completely redeems humanity from our current troubled state of affairs. Worried that we may never answer the perennial question of our existence, institutions scramble to accumulate fragments of truth. Students drown out this anxiety by overloading on courses that push toward the 21-credit limit. But isn’t it possible that what our academics believe today will mostly be proven false in the future? Isn’t it possible that the social progress instituted by universities so far may not necessarily guarantee their continued future success in enlightening society?
Knowing this limitation, some universities have begun to let go of their monopoly over knowledge. Schools in the health sciences, for example, are now promoting Community-Based Participatory Research. This method of research prioritizes an equal partnership between academics and members of the community, including faith-based organizations and healers of folk medicine. No single party hoards all the credit for successful findings and new knowledge gained. Endeavors like this one is a step in the right direction toward a future in which truth and knowledge can be shared among people trained in contrasting intellectual traditions. This shift in attitude is the key to meaningful, collaborative enlightenment of our nation and the world.
James Yoon is a Columbia College senior majoring in environmental science. Yooniversity runs alternate Thursdays.