A professor calls on a student sitting in the front row, “Could you describe in one word what you thought of the performance we’re discussing?”

The student doesn’t hesitate and simply replies, “Horrific.” The professor’s eyebrows raise and she shakes her head quickly, looking like a bird whose feathers have just been ruffled. Then she makes a small scoffing sound in the back of her throat and says, “Well, I think it’s safe to say that you’re being very judgmental.”

I was recently privy to a class discussion almost identical to this and I found it strange that the professor would have the kind of reaction she did. The performance in question was very dark and depicted a lot of violence. To me, it seemed a natural reaction to describe something like that as horrific.

Horror may have even been the reaction that the artists were going for. The fact that my classmate found this performance disturbing did not mean she was being overly-critical or judgmental. She merely didn’t like something, but was criticized for her opinion.

This was not the first discussion that I’ve seen end in a similar manner, and I daresay scenarios like this one are playing out in classrooms across the country.

In college, students are often required to examine the lens through which they view the world, and professors often demand that students challenge their personal beliefs and ideas. Higher education causes people to dissect their preconceived notions of reality and question what societal and cultural norms have groomed their thought processes.

All of this is extremely educational and beneficial. Such practices produce students that possess the well-rounded critical thinking skills of an educated mind.

However, I feel that many are using open-mindedness as an excuse to condemn individuals for their differing opinions. This is, of course, happening in many places outside the classroom, but I feel that the issue is most obvious when viewed in the world of academia where students are often asked to discuss politics and controversial theories, performances, pieces of literature or visual art.

An open mind is a useful tool to have, but the ability to think critically about something and form personal opinions is crucial. If professors publicly demean a student every time they express a negative or differing opinion, what more will they be doing than helping colleges produce a bunch of sheep with degrees?

In a letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal, Anne Lloyd expressed her despair at the state of many higher education institutions.

“I am simply resigned to the fact that my college senior routinely submits papers and essays espousing what a professor wants to read, verses his own point of view,” Lloyd said. “My senior’s favorite line is, ‘professors want me to be open minded, but I will not be so open minded my brains fall out.’ I am heartened by the fact that he is learning critical thinking skills—just not from the university his tuition supports.”

In many instances it seems that people are berated for disliking something, particularly if it addresses a controversial or sensitive subject. Is it not more important that a student be able to express and understand what it was about the subject that made them dislike it?

In today’s society it seems that we’ve become so worried about trying to force acceptance on other people that we can become intolerant of another individual’s personal opinions or beliefs. It would be better for students to learn how to tolerate and understand differing opinions, rather than trying to conform to all the differing opinions vying for acceptance.

It would be impossible to learn to think like everyone else. Instead, higher education should be cultivating individual thinkers.

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