Does a university education (degree, doctorate, etc.) allow you to develop a critical spirit or make you more conformist?

Does a university education (degree, doctorate, etc.) allow you to develop a critical spirit or make you more conformist?


Depends on the university and the student. I discovered we have another UNofficial language.
The author and I from University of Cape Town


I’d say it depends on what you major in. A science degree should teach you some critical thinking skills but not guaranteed. If you end up thinking like most of your peers about most subjects are you a conformist? Maybe.


I would like to agree with Diana. It is very much dependant on the person. Formal education can cause you to think in a narrow spectrum, or it can, as an “expert” in your group show you that you dont know as much about your own field cause science is constantly evolving. I also think that as one matures you DONT know it all and that is most humbling.


I would like to know, what you mean with conformist? Someone who agrees with scientific data, even if this means mainstream opinion?

I do think a good formal education allows you to know you subject of choice really well. It does allow you to know, what you don´t know and to critically evaluate information… If you are open for it (which not everybody is).
For me, my path through university also opened my eyes for the flaws in science through personal experience, which in the end even drove me away from a carreer in science… but I am still very fond of it all in all and even my big problems I had during my path (a very aweful case of misusing science for personal success no matter what) has in the meantime been resolved (his cover was blown and sent a huge shockwave through this field of science… but it was discovered, what I think will in the end always happen in science, if something is just plain wrong). But you have to be a very special kind of person to thrive in this field… which I am not. But I think and hope I am now able to judge scientific information in a realistic way.

However, I mean, I know a taxonomists (PhD) that does not believe in evolution (but instead in a lot of other bogus actually)… it puzzles me, but apparently it is possible to go that far in science education without getting a real insight in this part of science. Judging from my own experience, this kind of stubbornness to stick with ones own misconceptions is not super rare, but also not the rule.


Yeah, defining a conformist can be tricky. I suppose if you’re a scientist who opposes a well-established theory you’re a nonconformist. But science also advances when different ideas are debated so not conforming is sometimes a valuable trait to have. Although you might be conforming with others in your same theoretical “camp.”

For sure… if it is reasonable and backed by data :-)

I just think “conformist” has a rather negative conotation… at least to me (maybe a language barrier/misunderstanding?). But I don´t think t is a negative thing to go with the data, even if it means supporting a boring narrative nobody wants to hear anymore.

I myself learned (painfully) to be non-conformist in some areas (nuclear power, GMO…) where I had very clear opinions before I started to research… changing my mind was painful ;-D

… however, in many cases I am very much a conformist after doing my own “reserach” (how this term is used in internet ages)… e.g. vaccination, climate change…

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Higher ed gives you the tools to do science (or the humanities) critically. “Conformist” is a loaded, normative term–one person’s conformist is another’s rigorous scientist. Disciplinary norms are necessarily “conformist.” Otherwise we wouldn’t have disciplines. However, radically creative thinkers emerge within disciplines. Think of music–learning scales, music theory, the rules, allows you to learn how to break the rules.

In a broader sense, the question of what makes a maverick and what makes a conformist goes to personality, upbringing, social context, more than to higher ed.


I grew up in a relatively closed fundamentalist community. Everything I believed, I believed because it was the only thing I was ever taught. A university education exposed me to viewpoints I previously never even knew existed and allowed me to choose for myself what I believe.


If you were taught correctly you will be always critical of any info you receive, a very useful quality, but doesn’t make you a worse person if you believe in something here and there without checking books on the subject, or fall into believing authority, it means being a human.


An education doesn’t automatically infer wisdom, and it can’t even be said to guarantee to sweep away ignorance. Sometimes it can help people learn to think, sometimes it just instils ideology (i.e. the exact opposite of thinking).

Your mileage may vary.


The word conformist does have a rather negative connotation in English. It often suggests someone who doesn’t think for themselves, who just goes along with what the majority considers correct or acceptable. I don’t know anyone who would proudly identify themself as a conformist, even if they are.

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I think it really depends on the person.

I’ve met plenty of doctors and scientists who would not even entertain the possibility they could ever be mistaken about something, and will refuse to even look at proof to the contrary.

I’ve also met plenty of high-school dropouts with exactly the same tendency.

In my experience, both groups are very often wrong about things - their attitudes are a better indicator of that than their education level.

It also depends on what kind of schooling you get. Here in the US at least, “critical thinking” isn’t even taught until university level, and even then it’s a crapshoot what you get. I happened to have an excellent professor who taught us a lot of useful analysis skills I still use every day. A couple friends of mine, however, ended up failing their critical thinking course because they wrote essays arguing points their professor didn’t agree with. Their classmates who parroted back exactly what they’d been told all passed with flying colors.

One thing I have noticed is that education can guide you to some very interesting places, but can also blind somewhat at the same time.

I’ve made many interesting discoveries of species in places they’d never been seen, and weren’t “supposed” to exist in, just because I didn’t know enough to know I shouldn’t look for them there. But of course, if I didn’t have some knowledge, I’d never have known to look for them at all.


Reminds me of the old joke:
What’s the difference between God and a doctor? God doesn’t think he’s a doctor.

I’ll get my coat.


I’m not sure what you mean by a critical spirit. If you mean can someone be a skeptic after getting a degree then yes. In the end it depends on what you study and your personality. Some fields encourage critical thinking and others don’t. Some fields claim to be ‘free thinking’ but when you dig deeper they are very dogmatic. If your teachers are telling you what you are allowed to think/say/do based on who you are you know you’ve fallen into the latter.

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Closing the circle - that link is about your University, and your language? Afrikaaps?

When I went to University - Nkosi sikelel’ Afrika - was a banned song from the ANC. Student protest leaflets gave me an English translation. ‘God Bless Africa’ - banned in a nominally Christian country. Now it is our national anthem (and we still battle with the words which cross many of our languages!)

The thing about science, it’s always changing. So if you don’t have critical thinking skills and an open mind, college will either “conform” you, or increase your critical thinking skills.

that’s funny. i don’t think a university education makes you anything other than what it says on your degree. i also don’t think developing a “critical spirit” and becoming more conformist are necessarily related one way or the other. the truth is that you get what you decide to put into your studies at the university level, i think. and it’s often the overall university experience, not just the education that provides many of the opportunities to develop one way or the other.


I think it depends on the person and the university, and to some extent how limited or open a person’s background is. However, I think that in general university experience has the potential to make one think more critically, to be more aware of the kind of evidence needed to support or refute ideas. Some of this learning can happen outside class, when students debate various topics among themselves.

Although a lot of science and history, etc., classes just present information students need to learn, it’s common, almost standard, to include major opposing ideas and discuss the support for each. The relationship between evidence and conclusion is often presented as important. Why was continental drift rejected at first and later accepted? What evidence led to the acceptance of DNA as the genetic material in humans (and most other organisms)? What is the evidence for the Missoula floods across eastern Washington to the sea? Later classes get into specific methods for evaluating evidence, e.g. statistics and what can go wrong with statistical analysis. So the opportunity to learn critical thinking is provided at most universities, though I have to say that some students don’t seem to notice.

Also, just becoming more informed than most about some things gives one confidence to look skeptically at what others say. (One of my student workers took a lot of measurements from borrowed herbarium specimens. One day she picked one up and said, “Any more, the first question I have is, ‘Is this correctly identified?’.” We all chuckled; she was learning to be a scientist.)

So, yes, a university experience (and associated degree) has the potential to make you a better critical thinker and evaluate evidence better, but it may fail.