This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on August 31, 2016.
On December 2, 1942, beneath the bleachers of old Stagg Field, the University of Chicago rocked the world of science—and with it, the whole world—when physicist Enrico Fermi and his team engineered the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, which proved to be an indispensable step in the Manhattan Project’s development of an atomic bomb. Though it would prove to be historic, the initial chain reaction induced by Fermi “was too weak to power even a single light bulb.” Nevertheless, as fellow Chicago physicist Samuel Allison noted at the time, “All of us . . . knew that with the advent of the chain reaction, the world would never be the same again.”
The U of C appears intent on shaking up the world once more. But this time it aims not at a particular intellectual discovery but rather at preserving the very conditions of discovery itself: the freedom of the mind. With this move, it seeks to combat university censorship of speech and debate, which has become a national scandal. From university speech codes and commencement speaker “dis-invitations” to overt ideological indoctrination in the classrooms, our colleges and universities, whose defining mission is the free, nonpartisan quest for truth, are instead becoming prisons of intellectual conformism.
Not so on the Hyde Park campus in Chicago, where incoming freshmen were mailed a letter last week by Dean of Students, Jay Ellison, which reads, in part: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
With this proclamation, which follows on the university’s 2015 statement on “Freedom of Expression,” the school has written a declaration of independence through which it justifies its separation from the anti-intellectual regime that is ascending among so many of its peer institutions. The Chicago statement on Freedom of Expression champions “the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” As the school’s most influential president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, who presided over the campus from 1929-1951, stated it: “Freedom of inquiry, freedom of discussion, and freedom of teaching—without these a university cannot exist.”
As a former college professor and senior administrator, I can find no better one-sentence explanation of what truly makes higher education “higher.” Hutchins adds, “There is only one justification for universities, as distinguished from trade schools. They must be centers of criticism.”
But criticism stems from and fosters disagreement. Disagreement, as we all know and have experienced, can be unpleasant at times, even downright uncomfortable. To which the proper response is, “Tough. That’s how you become a mature, reflective adult.”
Like independent thinkers throughout the ages, the U of C now finds itself somewhat alone. And hated.
Consider the title of a Vox.com piece attacking the school: “UChicago’s anti-safe spaces letter isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about power.” The author, though mistaken, is to be commended for honesty: Postmodern thought, which has come to dominate many Western universities, reduces all human activities and pursuits—sex, love, marriage, justice, education—to “power relations.” Such thinkers dismiss the U of C’s argument that a substantive college curriculum can have only one unqualified commitment—to clarity. The quest for clarity presupposes that, through study, the fundamental question facing human beings—“What is human excellence?”—can become clear, or at least clearer. That is to say, it presupposes that there is an order external to and independent of human doing and making. But this is denied by postmodern thought, which is grounded in moral and cultural relativism. That is, it denies absolute or objective truth, the existence of which and search for which justifies academic freedom. Shockingly simplistic, this reductionist account of human aspirations has nonetheless gained no small number of adherents among faculty and administrators. Thus, they dismiss the U of C’s defense of freedom in the same manner as some of the school’s own students, who, when interviewed by the student newspaper, responded that the new policy sought to protect “hate speech” through disguising it as “discourse.”
Dean Ellison’s letter likely also looks to combat the illiberal bent displayed by the school’s Student Government, which, in May, failed to “reaffirm the University’s commitment to free speech when members voted to indefinitely table a resolution that would have condemned any student who ‘obstructs or disrupts’ free speech.” The Student Government’s refusal to take this measure is all the more glaring in light of the fact that the resolution came “in the wake of three high-profile incidents in which speakers invited to campus were shut down or interrupted by protesters.”
So, in defending freedom of speech and debate, the U of C finds itself battling a host of other schools as well as some of its own students. In fact, even some presidents of other colleges have piled on in an attempt to smother this attempted freedom-renaissance in its cradle. Why? As another writer recently noted, “They are complaining for a good reason: They don’t want free speech to spread to other campuses.”
Will the backlash against Chicago succeed in preventing free speech from spreading to other campuses?
If so, American education’s decline will drag American democracy down with it. Which returns us to Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was among the first to see this trend: “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.” Through depriving students of the opportunity to hear serious discussion and disagreement over humanity’s most pressing questions, our universities have “failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.” wrote Allan Bloom in 1987.
Sadly, Hutchins’s and Bloom’s analyses have proved prescient. We are in a war today, a war over the status of human reason and, with it, of individual freedom. Defenders of both are hoping that the U of C shakes up the world once again.