The dangerous phenomenon of GroupThink


Andrew D. Bartholet

In this age of political correctness, we can see the delicate landscape of universities erode around us into what I call “The Casualties of GroupThink.”

William H. White Jr, an American intellectual, coined the term, GroupThink, in a 1952 issue of Fortune Magazine.

The term has evolved to describe the social phenomenon where individuals in groups begin to adopt common ideologies with one another, and where dissenting opinions and controversy are ousted in favor of consensus and conformity.

This dangerous phenomenon can be observed at universities across the United States, where significant portions of student bodies become radicalized against social injustices including racism, sexism and various other discriminatory “institutions.” GroupThink has mobilized student bodies across the United States on a scale not seen since the Vietnam era, and the clout and influence of these radical groups has permeated the administrative policy and curriculum of many American Universities.

In the fall semester of 2015, Andrea Quenette, a communications teacher on track for tenure at the University of Kansas, was asked to leave KU after students complained she was racially insensitive during a class discussion about racism: Dr. Quenette used a racially charged word to highlight a specific example of racial prejudice. During the time I spent at KU, in that same semester, I felt overwhelmed by the relentless badgering and questioning from yippy-enlightened professors and students, that proved to be unavoidable distractions. Everyone drank the Kool-Aid. If a student didn’t, they risked being marginalized as racists or “socially unaware.”

GroupThink pushed a majority of KU personnel to be more concerned with identifying and acknowledging cultural issues, rather than seeking rational and comprehensive solutions to the most tangible issues the community faced. Furthermore, the integrities of the student body’s freedom of speech and liberal education were severely compromised. Unfortunately, these deficiencies are not unique to KU, but impact many campuses across the country–notably Yale, which recently commissioned a committee to oversee the renaming of its various colleges (possibly even the university itself) in a vain act of dissociation with slave owning benefactors.

The real controversy arises in the pursuit of solutions rather than the acknowledgment of problems. Therefore, it’s not surprising that many students become more concerned with awareness rather than change. We like to forget the ‘act’ in activism, and why wouldn’t we? No one can be labeled a racist by merely agreeing that racism exists, but if someone offers an idea about how racism, or any of its null effects, may be mitigated, they risk being labeled a racist for misrepresenting or discounting a serious issue.

The fact of the matter is that many issues like racism and sexism are serious, and they deserve serious discussions and purposeful action, not just shallow awareness and empty gestures. Furthermore, any activism or philanthropy intended to aid these issues requires a certain degree of respect and prudence that has been absent on college campuses these past several years. Such is the calamity of GroupThink, where free thought, free speech and the fluid dissemination of ideas necessary for pragmatic solutions, are the casualties, and vanity and safe spaces are the spoils.

I am not so naive that I believe UNO is immune to this plague that burdens many other universities, and I hope my peers, administrators and teachers are not either. While it is my intention to “raise awareness” of GroupThink, I would be a hypocrite if I stopped there. I believe there are three core activities that help people avoid GroupThink, and I invite all of my fellow Mavericks to join me in these practices.

One: Read as much as possible, more than what is required in class and certainly more than what is featured on Facebook’s newsfeed. Share your unique knowledge with friends and classmates. It is important that people in such close-knit communities, such as college campuses, not all read the same books or articles. The constant influx of information is essential to any healthy academic ecosystem.

Two: Think small, and pick one or two issues that you are truly passionate about, and lead the community in purposeful action that will bring about comprehensive change where it is needed most.

Three: Never stop asking questions, and never stop seeking answers. Questions and answers are the only real instruments of knowledge and wisdom at our disposal. Knowledge is in the number of answers one has acquired, and wisdom is in the quality of the questions one has learned to ask.