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Contest Prompts


Topic 1: How Colleges Create the "Expectation of Confirmation"


In recent months, college campuses have seen rousing protests break out against visiting speakers, perceived racial insensitivity, and "hate speech." But critics of these protests have raised the flag of free speech and academic freedom. One of the most prominent critics is Greg Lukianoff, whose contribution to The State of the American Mind includes the following statement:


"American academia, an institution that should help us fight the tendency of Americans to cluster ourselves in self-affirming cliques, instead encourages citizens to reinforce the walls of their echo chambers.  Indeed, colleges today instill in students an unrealistic expectation that their environment should conform to their existing biases and beliefs." (213) 


Do you think this is an accurate characterization of the current climate in higher education? Does Lukianoff correctly describe the groupings that form among undergraduates, and are their actions based on "unrealistic expectations"?

In your discussion, please reference Lukianoff's essay, as well as his video, below.


How Colleges Create the "Expectation of Confirmation"

Greg Lukianoff

“They decided not to cancel the lecture, so we decided to cancel it for them,” said Brown University student Jenny Li (Shallwani). Li and a group of Brown students made headlines when they successfully shut down a campus speech by former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly on October 29, 2013.

Kelly is a controversial figure. His stop-­and-­frisk program is credited by some with reducing violent crime in New York City and condemned by others for its treatment of black and Hispanic New Yorkers.

Topic 2: The Rise of the Self and the Decline of Intellectual and Civic Interest


Many people today speak about the narcissism of Millennials, citing personality research and academic surveys that show that the current generation of young people estimate themselves more highly than previous generations. One the leading voices in this conversation is Jean Twenge. In her contribution to The State of the American Mind includes the following statement:


"Like Brittany on Glee, American culture now promotes the idea that self-belief is more important than actual performance.  Believing that you are great is sufficient; actually learning or accomplishing something is not necessary." (125)


Do you think this is an accurate characterization of American culture? Is self-belief a prominent trait among the young, and is it somehow a bad thing? Take a position on this contention, arguing pro or con and explaining why this feature of the young has become so common a charge.

In your discussion, please reference Twenge's essay, as well as her video, below.


The Rise of Self and the Decline of Intellectual and Civic Interest

Jean M. Twenge

“Mr. Schue taught me the second half of the alphabet,” says high school student Brittany on the television show Glee. “I stopped after M and N. I felt they sounded too similar and got frustrated.” In another episode, Brittany refers to two universities in Northern California as “Stanford and Son or the University of California at Charles Barkley’s house” and mentions she has a 0.0 grade point average. Yet when she exits the show in a 2013 episode, it’s because MIT has suddenly discovered she’s a math genius.

Topic 3: Political Ignorance in America

In this election season, allegations of ignorance have been thrown at the young supporters of Bernie Sanders and, even more, the working class supporters of Donald Trump. It is said that both groups substitute idol worship for political knowledge. But one of the best commentators on the subject, Ilya Somin, wrote in The State of the American Mind that political ignorance and fandom is a complicated phenomenon:


"Obviously, some Americans learn political information for reasons other than becoming better voters.  Just as sports fans love to follow their favorite teams even though they can't influence the outcomes of games, 'political fans' enjoy following political issues and cheering on their favorite candidates, parties, or ideologies.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with being a political fan.  But when people seek out information for the purpose of enhancing the fan experience, that objective is often at odds with the goal of seeking out the truth." (167)


Do you think it is right to cast the "fan experience" as a tool of ignorance?  Does Professor Somin err in comparing politics to sporting events, or is American politics increasingly like a game, with the voters acting more and more as spectators?

In your discussion, please reference Somin's essay, as well as his video, below.


Political Ignorance in America

Ilya Somin

The specter of political ignorance hangs over American democracy, undermining a system of government that is supposed to epitomize the rule of the people. If the people often do not know what government is doing or what its effects are, it is far from clear that the people can rule in any meaningful or effective way.

The problem of political ignorance is not a new one.