Independent thinking in the light of Truth

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Photo by Emily Ashman

The University of Dallas is unique among institutions of higher education, both secular and Catholic. We pride ourselves on our delightfully absurd traditions, our incisive education, and the eccentric individuals that seem to characterize our spirit. 

Our penchant for “independent thinking” is key to our intellectual and spiritual development. However, it seems that we often use this motto to justify nearly all of our behavior, both good and bad. While independent thinking is crucial, I argue that it must follow after UD’s true mission: to seek truth and justice. 

During my time here, I’ve heard students account for a multitude of virtues and vices under the guise of independent thinking. Why do we drink so much? Independent thinking. Why do we feel free to chant expletives against political leaders we dislike? Independent thinking. Why should we follow this or that rule? Independent thinking. Why do our outdoor spaces reek with cigarette smoke? Independent thinking! 

This might not cross your mind when you choose to do or not do any of the above; however, I’ve heard arguments from students that critique our norms and values by claiming that they constrict our ability to think and act for ourselves, which puts forth an inverted and distorted vision of acting for the Good.

My intention is not to directly condemn or argue specifically against any of the habits above. Reasonable people disagree about the complexities of these issues. Rather, I want us to push ourselves to a rational account for what we practice. 

The freedom of independent thought can tend toward a free floating morality, where one does not truly examine the ends of one’s action. In the Tradition, we find that free will is not an end in itself. To be free without an end is misery. Rather, every action we freely assent to is ordered toward some good. 

In the case of UD’s emphasis on free inquiry, in no way should it point us toward any action we choose. Our university is distinctively radical, in the sense that we are deeply rooted (as the word calls forth etymologically) in the pursuit of truth, justice and virtue that liberal education is ordered toward. 

Liberal education frees us and enables our independence from the deceptions and false promises that the world offers us. The formation we receive gives us the tools to sift through the dust of worldly opinion to find the nuggets of truth that instill us with life. 

Our curriculum ought to allow us to put into practice the command of Romans 12:2, to “not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind[s].” 

We encounter the best and the most heinous of men in our curriculum, reading the church fathers alongside Marx, studying Aquinas while examining the First World War, absorbing Dante as we learn about Nietzsche. These great books are given to us to cause deep reflection in our souls, to challenge us to incorporate into ourselves the finest virtues and recognize our most tender wounds. 

Prioritizing pure individual will over grounded truth leads down a path of despair, for our creative powers are starkly limited. Before we decide what we ought to do, we must plunge into what it means to love truth and justice.

Whatever habits we choose to cultivate while under the mantle of our alma mater, if we are to be the truest UD students, who embrace her mission wholeheartedly, we ought to hold ourselves to this high standard — to understand what the good life is and independently charge our wills with full pursuit of every action that fulfills that eudaimonic end. 

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