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Opinion | Shulamit Reinharz

Missing from the US education debate

The University of Chicago.Joshua Lott/The New York Times/The New York Times

The University of Chicago’s letter informing students that they should come prepared to debate ideas, not retreat from them, reflects just one pole in the polarized US conversation about the best conditions for a college education.

Many faculty and students throughout the country endorse a different position, however, one represented by sensitive “trigger warnings,” the possibility of cancelling invited speakers, the creation of intellectual “safe spaces,” and other mechanisms that are intended to foster a community of teachers and learners where people need not fear being diminished or attacked.

Although the tension between these two positions now defines the educational discourse, I believe there is a sorely missing third point. My concern regarding this third point arose years ago when I wrote to the president of my undergraduate alma mater, Barnard College, asking why a certain faculty member was being considered for tenure when so much of her work was inflammatory and of questionable validity. The president’s answer was that Barnard seeks to present a wide variety of views.


What was missing in her answer was the question of whether some views have more value than others.

What is missing in the statement issuing from the University of Chicago is equal emphasis on the two words in the iconic phrase “free inquiry.” In our rush to embrace freedom of expression, we have forgotten about the meaning of inquiry.

Freedom of expression seems to have disintegrated into the idea that anything that anyone has ever thought of should be expressed without restriction, with little regard as to whether the idea has merit according to some standard of inquiry. How does this definition of what should be expressed, for example, square with a course distribution requirement at Brandeis University called “quantitative reasoning?” In fact, where does reasoning fit into the scheme of whether all ideas should be considered?

Should a person espousing Nazi ideology, for example, be allowed to speak on a campus just because students or faculty invited her/him? I would choose to avoid such a speech not because I wanted to be safe, but rather because the speech would be based on faulty reasoning. Are all ideas valid? Can we use information to invalidate ideas and then not have those ideas repeated as part of the diversity of perspectives?


I am still reeling from the decision of a former Brandeis University president to rescind the invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was to receive an honorary degree, a decision he made in response to a letter signed by many faculty members stating that her receiving a degree could be interpreted as endorsing an anti-Islam position that would alienate Brandeis’s Muslim students. What about the fact that I felt alienated by the decision to rescind? Whose hurt triumphs in decision-making? What if one group’s safety represents another group’s silencing? Have we considered this problem sufficiently?

I believe that a great education falls neither in the “free speech regardless of what a person is saying” camp nor in the “protect students from being hurt by speech” camp. I believe, instead, that a great education requires, first and foremost, teaching students how to evaluate ideas, how to define criteria upon which reasonable people will agree. I think it is time to focus on the difficult question of how we create standards and how we examine statements using the various tools that have been developed through the centuries and are now strengthened by our new experiences. This is a difficult challenge, but that is what education is truly all about. By confronting this challenge, we can free ourselves from the binary that now defines our conversation about higher education and begin to focus on the thorny issue of inquiry itself.


Shulamit Reinharz is director of the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.