What Professors Ought to Tell Students

We professors should transmit to our students three simple but ancient truths: (1) in many important matters in our fields, the ignorance of experts vastly exceeds our knowledge. (2) Much of what we think we know is hard to verify and may well be wrong. (3) We, and the materials that we will assign and discuss with students are their best route to learning.

Our vastly increased understanding of our world and universe over the centuries is wondrous, but it is mostly in the hard sciences and mathematics. Progress in the social sciences, which examine how we feel, behave, and interact with one another, is spotty and will probably always remain so due to the elusive complexities of causation, psychology, will, and the methodological impediments to rigorously studying and analyzing these issues. The humanities greatly enrich our lives, of course, but they mostly deepen the mysteries of life rather than dispel them.

Uncertainties Are Our Companions

Wise teachers, of course, already know this. They communicate it to their students in hopes of arousing their curiosity (at the risk of encouraging a lazy, mindless nihilism). I suspect, however, that many other professors are so eager to thrust their views on their students in a show of brilliance, self-confidence, and subject-matter expertise that they forego this wisdom and the intellectual and personal humility that should go with it. After all, they have earned doctorates, worked hard to master their fields of expertise, and gained faculty positions at fine institutions which in effect certify their own intellectual excellence. Why be humble and confess much ignorance, especially to students who probably don’t know any better?

We podium pundits should not merely acknowledge the considerable uncertainty that surrounds our fields; we should emphasize it from the very first class. Why? First and foremost, it is true — and teachers are obliged to speak the truth both to power and to ignorance. Only if students appreciate the uncertainties in what they are studying can they apply important distinctions. There is what we “know” to be true (or false) with a high degree of confidence, though always subject to refutation. There is what is provisionally true (or false) but not yet firmly established as such. There is what is plausibly true in the limited sense that respectable arguments can be made on various sides of the question. And there is a matter for pure (though hopefully informed) speculation – an invitation to new theories, methodologies, and evidence.  Students need to understand and apply these gradations of knowledge in their fields of study.

Holmes’s Famous Dissent

But professors should emphasize our ignorance about important questions for another reason. The students who join elite campuses (where I have mainly taught) come with surprisingly firm, entrenched political identities and views. Their premature certainties exist even though – or more probably, because — few of them have much experience of life and its myriad complexities. Not surprisingly, they know little of the diverse values, perspectives, and methodologies with which serious thinkers in their fields of study have grappled with these conundra, and of the weak analytical and evidentiary foundations of many of our firmest commitments. Justice Holmes put this point well in a famous dissent almost a century ago, one that presciently captures a major source of conflict on today’s campuses:

      “Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally…sweep away all opposition.… But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas….”

Students’ striking political and intellectual smugness is both predictable and understandable. In this, they ape the certitudes of so many of their elders. Our liberal culture demands little critical thinking from young people and tends to applaud their idealistic bien pensant views. After all, the main reason they came to campus in the first place was to supplant their ignorance and inexperience. (There are also less lofty reasons, of course). But their greenness only heightens professors’ duty to pierce students’ ideological armor and challenge their preconceptions immediately and constantly.

Most professors would surely acknowledge this duty; the notion of robust debate that challenges preconceptions, including our own, is a hoary academic mantra. The vast majority of faculty on elite campuses espouse political liberalism that they think their years of scholarly work have only confirmed and deepened. For them, and for the small cadre of conservative professors, intellectual humility and self-abnegation are neither congenial nor easy.

All the more reason, then, for faculty to commit ourselves to these academic values and to recruit more young professors with intellectually diverse views – as reflected in their normative commitments, disciplinary methodologies, and empirical interests, not their partisan preferences. This commitment will enrich our students’ lives on campus and beyond.


  • Peter H. Schuck

    Peter H. Schuck is an emeritus professor at Yale Law School. His most recent book is, “One Nation Undecided: Clear Thinking About Five Hard Issues That Divide Us" (Princeton University Press).

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One thought on “What Professors Ought to Tell Students”

  1. But let us be clear here…

    When we tell our students, 1) in many (most?) important matters our knowledge is well-exceeded by our ignorance… 2) much of what we even think we know is probably wrong… and then assure them, 3) nevertheless, WE are your best route to learning… we present them with a dilemma, yes, but we hand also them a singularly irresistible solution, posed as a question: why on earth should they follow such an egotistical ignoramus anywhere?

    Prof. Schuck cautions us about “encouraging a lazy, mindless nihilism” with such an introduction, but that horse has already left the barn and is not only carelessly loose but galloping merrily in the opposite direction. Lazy, mindless nihilism….a sloppy moral & intellectual relativism….an exceedingly post-modern embrace of the ‘fact’ that meaning has been annihilated (including, of course, the notion that there is even such a thing as meaning)…all these things, these days, come paper-clipped to every high school diploma (particularly those which end-up at the so-called Elite Schools).

    So one of the worst things to do with the matriculating “intellectually shallow and smug”, the “young and clueless”, those secure in their locked-down demographic political identity boxes… is to endorse their already bone-deep belief that nothing is any better or any worse than anything else and that no one (really) knows anything beyond the selfish reality of their own experience.

    So no…that is not how to begin, nor is it even where education should begin. Rather we might suggest what Yale itself proclaims: Lux et Veritas: the declaration that what we are all about (student and teacher alike) is the pursuit of Truth (capital “T”) and through the dogged accumulation of those hard-won truths, Enlightenment.

    Certainly we might add that Truth, like any holy grail, is something always sought and never completely or absolutely obtained, that we see it only dimly. But equally we should note that this pursuit has been undertaken by the very best and brightest in every culture, and every time. We should explain that before we, ourselves, can venture forth into the Wilderness, we would be wise to first learn who and what has gone before…that before we pioneer forward, we must come to know & fully understand: what trails have been blazed…what has been found (what has been lost)….and where we, in that rush of time now stand.

    Given then the overwhelming immensity of the Forest (dark & deep), who better as a companion than one who has tread these paths before?

    Part of the problem here is the implication, noted by Prof. Schuck, that perhaps too many who bear the imprimatur of PhD feel themselves to be “intellectually excellent” confident they have “mastered their fields of expertise”. Thus his recommendation that they (and their students) embrace a kind of ritualistic cleansing…embracing, with a natural humility, the truth that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in (any) philosophy”. That’s not bad advice by any means (particularly since most ‘fields of expertise’ which have birthed PhD’s are sadly measured on the heads of pins)….but before we implore our students to recognize Vast Uncertainty, we should first share with them the Newtonesque understanding that if they ever hope to see further, they must first learn how to stand on the shoulders of Giants.

    And to do that …well, there are many promises to keep, and miles to go before they sleep.

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