The University of Chicago has a long tradition of defending free inquiry and robust intellectual debate. The institution’s first president, William Rainey Harper, declared in a 1902 address that “the principle of complete freedom of speech on all subjects has from the beginning been regarded as fundamental in the University of Chicago” and insisted that “this principle can neither now nor at any future time be called in question.”
Harper couldn’t have foreseen the wave of self-censorship that would engulf American higher education in the 21st century, let alone the widening circle of topics, terms, and theses that would be treated on many college campuses as too radioactive to tolerate. But he would be heartened to know that the University of Chicago remains as stalwart as ever in upholding its founding principles.
In a letter sent last week to the entire incoming class of 2020, the university made it clear that the students at the University of Chicago will not be treated as fragile snowflakes, to be sheltered at all costs from disturbing, unfamiliar, or distressing points of view.
“Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship,” wrote the school’s dean of students, John “Jay” Ellison. Civility and mutual respect are indispensable in academic life, he emphasized, but “we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.”
In much of American academia lately, the notion that intellectual growth can involve — should involve — grappling with unpleasant or uncongenial ideas has become taboo. Professors have been silenced or disciplined for saying or publishing things some students resented. Students have been punished for speaking freely about hot-button issues. Universities have promulgated dangerously illiberal speech codes, commencement speakers have been denounced and disinvited, and the orthodoxies of political correctness have been enforced with Star Chamber severity.
At the University of Chicago, students should anticipate none of that.
“Our commitment to academic freedom,” wrote Dean Ellison, “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.”
It is a troubling sign of the times that college freshmen should require such a message. But it would be well if Chicago’s example inspired other schools to follow suit — particularly here in New England, with its critical mass of influential universities.
At Harvard and Yale, at Brandeis and Brown, at Northeastern and the University of Massachusetts, students should be receiving the same forceful reminder: Higher education is for thinking and learning, not for being indulged. “Intolerance-in-the-name-of-tolerance” has no place at any self-respecting school. The proper response when hearing opinions you oppose is to debate them — or better still, consider them — on the merits, not to demand that they be stifled. “I’m offended” is not an argument. If students haven’t learned that before they arrive on campus, university administrators should waste no time getting the message across. Bravo to the University of Chicago for leading the way.
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