08/19/2013 05:28 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2013

Students: Exercise Your Intellectual Freedom

With a new academic year beginning, here is some advice for students. These suggestions were written with college students in mind, but they apply to any student old enough to read them.

Come to school to think. Of course you should come to school to learn. But you should think about what you learn, how it relates to what you already know, and why you should (or shouldn't) believe it. This will enhance both your learning and your thinking.

Exercise your intellectual freedom. In class and out, exercise your freedoms of belief, expression, and inquiry. Seek information, decide what you believe, and join the discussion. Do more research. Reconsider your beliefs. Reflect on how you came to them. Say what you think now, and why. Consider new alternatives.

Respect the intellectual freedom of others. If you don't agree with what you are hearing, express an alternative view. If you don't know enough to formulate and defend an alternative, learn more. Efforts to restrict the beliefs and expression of others are unfair to them and undermine academic freedom for everyone.

Aim to convince. Find out what others believe and listen seriously to their reasons and reasoning. Show them you understand what they believe and why. Recognize the partial truth in their beliefs. Starting with what they presently believe, show them why and how they should modify their views.

Try not to give offense. It doesn't help to ridicule, intimidate, or infuriate those who disagree with you. Offending others undermines your goal of convincing them. You can't control the feelings of others but you can and should anticipate likely reactions and take these into account in determining what you say and how you say it.

Say what needs to be said. In academic contexts you should say what you believe needs to be said, even if someone may be offended or upset by it. Not everything must or should be said in every social context, but education is a context oriented toward truth and justification. Find the nicest way to say it, but say it.

Think critically, and not just about ideas you dislike. If you agree with all your teachers and fellow students, think more critically. Seek out people who disagree with you and ideas contrary to your own. Consider the possibility that others may sometimes be right, or at least have reasonable ideas, and that you may sometimes be wrong, or at least fall short of the full truth.

Respect the academic freedom of your teachers. Your teachers are collectively and individually responsible for academic decisions about matters of curriculum and instruction and should have the academic freedom to exercise their academic authority. This includes decisions to present relevant information and ideas and to assess your understanding of what you are expected to learn.

Resist indoctrination. The freedom of your teachers to educate is not a right to indoctrinate a captive audience. Curriculum must be determined on academic grounds and aimed at academic goals. Even if the curriculum is academically legitimate, you should have the academic freedom to criticize it, provide additional information or arguments, and express alternative interpretations or viewpoints.

Assert your rights. Most faculty respect the intellectual freedom of students, but you may need to assert yourself to raise questions others are not raising or add additional ideas into a class discussion. If faced with censorship or sanctions, you may be protected by norms of academic freedom, school policies, or (at a public institution) the First Amendment. Learn your rights.

Focus on education. Exercising your intellectual freedom is not just about asserting your rights. It is about participating in intellectual discussion, thereby promoting learning and development for yourself and others. Insist on intellectual freedom for everyone, not only for the sake of freedom, which is reason enough, but also for the sake of education.