Kant goes to college: independent thinking vs. the progressive herd

The 300th anniversary of Immanuel Kant’s birth, celebrated last month, provides us with an occasion to consider the enduring relevance of the philosopher’s ideas for higher education. Specifically, should universities simply equip students with job-ready skills, or is there a more profound purpose?

Kant sheds light on this central question. He believed humans possess an inherent capacity for reason, a quality he termed “autonomy.” This autonomy sets us apart from other creatures, allowing us to make informed decisions based on reason and independent thought, rather than yielding to blind impulses or external pressures.

Higher education, then, becomes the crucial institutional context for igniting and nurturing autonomy — for fostering independent, mature individuals equipped to navigate an increasingly complex world. Viewed from this perspective, colleges and universities should not simply focus on transmitting prepackaged knowledge or cultivating job-specific skills. Instead, they should create an environment that empowers students to develop their critical thinking muscles, grapple with complex ideas and arrive at their own well-reasoned conclusions.

Such a Kantian approach thus aims to foster the intellectual independence necessary for students to navigate the complexities of the 21st century, contribute meaningfully to society and, ultimately, flourish as human beings.

Some contemporary trends, however, seem at odds with Kant’s emphasis on fostering independence. It’s worth exploring Kant’s potential reaction to a specific trend within some segments of higher education: the rise of what some perceive as a “progressive herd mentality.” Here, a focus on social justice can sometimes morph into a pressure to conform to a specific ideological viewpoint, potentially stifling the very intellectual independence Kant championed.

Imagine a seminar where students hesitate to express dissenting opinions for fear of social ostracization. Kant would likely view this with deep concern. He believed that exposure to diverse perspectives is crucial for intellectual growth. An environment where a single ideology reigns supreme fosters intellectual stagnation and undermines the very purpose of higher education.

For Kant, truth is unearthed through open and rigorous debate, not by silencing dissent. He might argue that a “progressive herd mentality” creates a culture of intellectual conformity, hindering students from developing the critical thinking skills necessary to navigate the complexities of real-world issues.

Furthermore, Kant might criticize the tendency to reduce complex social issues to simplistic ideological tropes. He believed that reason, not blind allegiance to a particular school of thought, should guide our moral judgments. A Kantian approach would encourage students to grapple with the nuances of social justice issues and analyze the merits of competing arguments to reach their own conclusions. He might argue that a “progressive herd mentality” discourages this critical engagement, fostering an “us vs. them” framing of issues that hinders productive dialogue and meaningful social change.

The rise of “cancel culture” on some campuses would raise red flags for Kant. He believed in the importance of free speech, even when it involves offensive or unpopular ideas. Open dialogue, not silencing dissenting voices, is the cornerstone of a robust intellectual environment. Kant might argue that cancel culture undermines the very process of critical inquiry by shutting down conversations before they can even begin. This stifles intellectual growth and hinders the development of the moral compass that a truly just society necessitates.

So how might Kant envision a more productive approach to social justice issues on college campuses? He would likely advocate for intellectual courage. This means fostering environments where students are urged to grapple with challenging ideas, engage in respectful dialogue with those who hold differing views and develop their own stances based on evidence and reason. This approach doesn’t shy away from discomfort but embraces it as a necessary catalyst for intellectual and moral growth.

It’s important to note that Kant wouldn’t advocate for complete ideological neutrality. He believed in the importance of universal moral principles, such as justice and respect for human dignity. But his focus was on fostering the capacity for independent moral reasoning, not imposing a specific set of beliefs.

The challenge lies in striking a balance. Universities should continue to foster social justice movements, but within a framework that encourages intellectual independence and open dialogue. This might involve fostering a wider range of guest speakers, encouraging respectful debate within classrooms and providing safe spaces for students to explore diverse perspectives without fear of social ostracization.

By embracing a Kantian approach to education, our institutions can cultivate not just skilled professionals, but ethically grounded individuals prepared to navigate the complexities of the 21st century and contribute meaningfully to a truly just and flourishing world.

Kant’s ideas, though formulated centuries ago, offer a timeless framework for higher education. He reminds us that the ultimate goal of learning is not simply the acquisition of knowledge, but the cultivation of independent thinkers capable of navigating the world with reason, responsibility and a commitment to the betterment of society.


This Kantian vision feels more relevant than ever. As we face complex challenges from climate change to technological disruption, we need graduates who can think critically, analyze information from multiple perspectives and engage in constructive dialogue; who are not afraid to challenge the status quo, possess the moral courage to stand up for what they believe in and are committed to building a more just and equitable future.

Let us celebrate Kant not just in philosophy textbooks, but as a guiding light for the future of higher education. Let our universities become crucibles where intellectual independence is ignited, critical thinking skills are honed and the seeds of human flourishing are sown.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him @aalatham.

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