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

I’m diploma only. A degree is 3 or 4 more years of studying. Critical thinking was given a mention in Junior college. I attended Junior college for 3 months before I dropped out and went the diploma route. They have the General Paper as subject, a killer subject. Proficiency in the English language is definitely a requisite. The classes with a Mr King as the teacher was very open. He talked about wide-ranging topics, like a mention on Irish conflict in UK, or another time on religion. He was the rugby teacher and the GP teacher, in a Catholic school on government funding. I’m in Southeast asia.
Time is the essence, an easy way is to be conformist and agree to the mainstream views. If one have the time to think about the slight anomalies in the IDs, perhaps there may be a realisation of differences. but it is not often there is a circumstance like a reinvention of the wheel. Higher education is a lot more technical. A natural higher intelligence separates the brilliant students from average students. There are people who have mega-memory. Hard to beat them in exams.

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I’ve a hypothesis that at least some science deniers are doing it for this very reason: disagree with the scientific consensus because it is a consensus.


An engineering degree teaches you how to solve problems that generally have one correct answer, so I’ll say I’m a conformist. Architects are the creative ones anyways.


Interesting thought and interesting question. First and foremost, it obviously depends greatly on the person and even more so on the professors. That said, I DO think that much of the time there is some degree of pressure, peer and otherwise, to conform to a certain way of thinking and acting. Obviously here I’m not talking about the actual knowledge one is taught, but rather about how that knowledge is processed and put into practice. I have never been to university, but I have frequented semi-professionally a great many young people who are either mid-course or recently graduated and the impression I have from the vast majority is that questioning the accepted credo is NOT a good thing, while conforming is advisable, maybe even essential, if you want to fit in and get ahead professionally. And watching the trials and tribulations suffered by some of the more critical, I fear they may be right, although probably these different mindsets are intrinsic to the individuals rather than directly university related.

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I have only 5 first year science credits. Physics and chemistry are I know how much I don’t know. Geology … rocks still follow me home, and I sympathise with the rock photos from new / hopeful iNatters. Zoology lost me when we tied earthworms in dying knots in salt water - count me critical and non-conformist. I’m a vegetarian, still interested in observing living animals, without harming or killing them.

But botany introduced me to the fynbos I live among. And I have never lost that first love.

@lynkos said that most students learn that “questioning the accepted credo is NOT a good thing, while conforming is advisable”

I think an important distinction needs to be made here. In science, many ideas are “accepted credo” because there is excellent evidence for them, and students who have learned about and understood that evidence ought to accept it, too. It’s not so much that students shouldn’t question these things, but that they when they question they should understand why we know they’re true. I mean, the earth is round, evolution happens, the universe we know about is about 13 billion years old, many diseases are caused by germs, vaccines generally work, etc.

Note that there are lots of controversies associated with these concepts. Is neutral evolution or natural selection more important, and what is meant by important in this context? What causes specific cancers and how can they be treated or cured? Do the benefits of vaccine X outweigh its problems? Are the real benefits of using nuclear power worth the real risks? Are herbicides worth the risk, and how does that vary among different herbicides? We can and should argue about these things. We can also argue forever about social implications (or lack of implications) of these established ideas.

I think part of becoming a good critical thinker is learning what is no longer worth arguing about.


I am curious about what inspires your question?


This is what many science deniers and psudoscientists just do not seem to grasp.


I absolutely agree. As I said, I was referring NOT to knowledge itself, but rather to “how that knowledge is processed and put into practice”. At least here in Italy and among the students I’ve encountered in recent years, there seems to be a generalised conviction that to get ahead you need to conform to certain patterns of behaviour and thought… and again, I’m referring to the applicational/practical level, rather than the direct knowledge acquired. And that’s a pity, given that now more than ever we need imaginative lateral thinkers to break through certain outdated mindsets that still dominate the various nature/environment/ecology related professions.


it all depends on you, on your passion, work on yourself and sincere love for science, nature and so on; you can be a professor and be a person with minimal horizons; you can be a master degree, smarter and better than many professors

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I’m not sure whether a college education has any bearing on becoming a conformist or a dissenter, more than anything, the top three benefits of higher education are:

  1. Baseline Knowledge: It’s hard to know what’s inportant to learn vs. what’s not. While getting a degree, you’ll be exposed to many different subjects of which a fraction are ones you’ll use regularly in future work. What’s important here isn’t so much that you retain 100% of what’s taught, but the process of applying new knowledge to solve problems presented during coursework. It teaches how to think and what resources (books) to refer to when encountering similar problems in the future.

  2. Networking: If you are able to, getting involved in clubs and activities related to your field of study and talking to professors you respect during their office hours is a good way to make friends with similar interests. Later in life, these friendships become a source of job opportunites or vice versa where you can reach out to friends letting them know about such opportunities.

  3. Degree: Depending on where you want to work in the future, a degree may be something that gatekeeps entry into that field, where a potential employer wouldn’t even look at a resumé of anyone lacking the degree. Sometimes, it’s just about having this expensive piece of paper…

What I do think has bearing on conformity is having to pay bills. It’s harder to be a non-conformist when rent/mortgage costs reward conformity :grinning:

More seriously, I think non-conformity is more about dissatisfaction with the status quo. If you have a good understanding of how things are and find it disappointing, you may think differently. Alternatively, if the way things are doesn’t bother you and following established practices solves your problems, why not conform?


There haven’t been replies since some days so I think that I can write something.
As far as my personal experience is concerned, I could say that university does not explicitly encourage the development of critical thinking in students. As other have previously written, I think that it mostly depends on everyone’s attitude. It is undeniable that university could provide the knowledge and the methodological basis that could allow the instinct towards critical thinking to be more effective.
Anyway, I think I can also say that I have seen a sort of corporativism among people with a degree or a PhD (I think I am not immune to this phenomenon). This phenomenon could become obvious in behaviours such as the acritical defense, both conscious for advantage or unconscious, of what comes from the “scientific world” or the acritical acceptance of “scientific propaganda” airing 24 hours a day or also a sort of haughty attitude towards those who have not these qualifications.
It is possible that these people are also somehow conformists in non-scientific issues.
Of course, I do not mean that this is widespread nor that it is the norm.

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… for sure these behaviours exist in science like in every other large dataset of people across society. After all, scientist are also just humans. An maybe in this subset they are most remarkable and annoying.
It would however be interesting to see, how large the proportion of those behaviours are in this subset of a given population versus other subsets or the totality of the population…


Yes, of course. But the point was if such people, who should be supposed to have the basis to be less conformists, actually are less or more conformists (or as conformists as the other).

Yes. Who knows if ther are dedicated studies…

Find a friendly sociologist, or psychologist. We may have some here on iNat? Or on the Education thread?

Lots on google for ‘conformity bias’

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Not sure if this will gel with the general sentiment of this topic, but:

Some of the smartest people I know, who are at the forefront of knowledge creation and reshaping the boundaries of their field, do not have any university qualifications, not even a Diploma. Inversely, some of the biggest dunces I’ve ever met have multiple PhD’s

Moral of the story is: The higher the qualification you achieve, the better equipped you are to contribute to the progression of your chosen pursuit, PROVIDED that you have the ability to apply what you have learnt into meaningful impacts at grassroots level. If you cannot do this, and just sit atop all of your qualifications like a Dragon on its horde, then you’re just an idiot with a shiny piece/s of paper

I hope I don’t offend anyone with this, but this is what I’ve experienced in life so far


University education happens too late to change who you are.

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Maybe for some. I was blissfully ignorant about a lot of things when I was in high school and then was exposed to a lot of different new ideas when I was in college. My thinking did change in ways that, absent the college education, might never have happened if high school was the extent of my schooling. If nothing else, college gets you to consider what you don’t know and teaches you how to rectify that gap in knowledge. Of course, for some, just living long enough will teach you important lessons that might alter your thinking.


I should add that being a nonconformist in high school was definitely much more difficult than being one in college. But maybe that’s different now.

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Maybe yes… changing who you are is a huuuge thing and I am not sure if that is possible at all.
But university for sure can change how you see the world or aspects in it. It did for me. As I wrote earlier I had some mind changing experiences about certain aspects I grew up with. … but yeah, it might be that I was open enough to let it happen to begin with… this trait probably did not just evolve in university