Silence U Pt. 3: Can the University of Chicago solve the campus free speech crisis?

Silence U Pt. 3: Can the University of Chicago solve the campus free speech crisis?

October 14, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


A new type of protest has descended upon college campuses, one committed to shutting down political opponents. Over and over, we’ve watched students successfully shout their school into submission. “The University is ours!” With one notable exception… “One college institution taking a stand for free speech.” “Interesting little note at the University of Chicago to the incoming students.” “We do not cancel invited speakers.” “And none of those ‘trigger warnings.'” “And we do not condone ‘safe spaces.'” “The declaration of war on political correctness.” Why is the University of Chicago the place that’s pushing back? And in a country drowning in
political thuggery, can it survive? Well, let’s go find out! (music) [SHWEDER] You’re entering a rather special place. An institution that’s dedicated to asking deep questions, being willing to challenge received truths, The University of Chicago is off the scale in terms of intellectual intensity. [MONTZ] In trying to figure out the origins of that intensity, I kept bumping into one name. [SHWEDER] Robert Maynard Hutchins became president around 1930. Hutchins had controversial views about the nature of undergraduate education. [MONTZ] Hutchins envisioned something like a military academy for the mind, one grounded in a demanding core curriculum. [HUTCHINS] The aim of education has to be to develop intellectual power. [MONTZ] At the time, Chicago was a football powerhouse, boasting the first ever Heisman trophy winner,
and Chicago helped create the Big 10, the oldest college football conference in the country. [SHWEDER] He was very much against athletics dominating an academic environment. [MONTZ] Hutchins condemned football as an infernal nuisance. and promptly disbanded the school’s team. [FOLDI] Our biggest sports are Ultimate Frisbee and Model UN. [MONTZ] Model UN is not a sport! [FOLDI] Model UN…We are the best Model UN team in the world. [MONTZ] The message from subsequent presidents is clear: ‘We’re here to shape you. Not serve you.’ [GRAY] Universities have increasingly come to be regarded as paternalistic welfare states. Education is not meant to make people comfortable; it is made to make them think. [SHWEDER] Sometime in the 1990s, Harvard undergraduates put together what they called the ‘Fun Index.’ The University of Chicago was ranked number 300 out of 300, just behind the US Military Academy. [MONTZ] Hutchins helped lay the groundwork for a world class argument abattoir, a place where bad thinking gets brutally dissected. And that abattoir is fueled by provocation. (music) [KOGANZON] There was a willingness
to say crazy things just for the sake of putting them out there and forcing people to sort of, you know, ‘Fight me!’ (music) [SHWEDER] Provocation is a virtue. The assumptions that you hold get challenged. [MONTZ] Provocation makes you do something you desperately don’t want to do: confront your own ignorance. [SHWEDER] That can be upsetting,
but it’s in pursuit of truth. [MONTZ] And even toxic provocation is useful. [MONTZ] And the way to ensure that everyone is perpetually provoked is to build in vast ideological diversity. Everyone thinks everyone else is wrong. [MONTZ] Now keeping this vicious argument abattoir churning requires protecting the most controversial voices. [STONE] During the McCarthy Era, Chicago was maybe the only institution to stand up for the principle of free speech. A student group at the University invited the leader of the Communist Party, William Foster. And officials from the state of Illinois demanded that the University withdraw this invitation. And Hutchins stood strong. [SHWEDER] In fact, in testimony with the state of Illinois in which they were concerned about communists on the faculty, Hutchins basically said, “I think we need a few more.” [BROWN] I wrote the post, “Three Cheers for White Men” in June 2015, and the phrase, you know, ‘we don’t want dead white European males,’ so I was teasing. America is the greatest country in the history of human civilization, not because it is ‘white,’ but because it is founded on particular values. Which got the attention of my colleagues in Medieval Studies across the country, who wrote the open letter claiming that I was an alt-right sympathizer and a white supremacist. That open letter gained something like 1,500 signatures. Nothing happened, and that’s exactly as it should be. [MONTZ] The modern incarnation of smug, silencing activism did, initially, catch the University off guard. [FOLDI] We had, at our Institute of Politics, Anita Alvarez, our state’s attorney at the time. She presided over the suppression of the footage of a police officer shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times. “Murdered by a Chicago policeman.” [FOLDI] A unique opportunity to challenge her on the disaster of her tenure. Within 7 minutes, people from not-campus prevented her from speaking. [FOLDI] The second event is Palestinian Bassem Eid who is Anti Palestinian government. “Where is the courageous leadership?” [FOLDI] Groups like Students for Justice in Palestine from Loyola, DePaul, shut down the entire event. [FOLDI] One of them shouted, ‘I’m gonna follow you at all of your events in Chicago and also blow up your car.’ [MONTZ] But Chicago doesn’t capitulate. It mounts its defenses, including that Summer of 2016 letter to incoming freshmen, flatly rejecting trigger warnings, safe spaces,
and de-platforming. [SHWEDER] Preserving the groundrules that make an institution like the University of Chicago possible. [MONTZ] And then Chicago promptly demonstrates precisely how free speech ought to work on a college campus. “Newly selected White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer will travel to speak at the University of Chicago, but not everyone on campus believes Spicer should be allowed to talk. “Sir, please do not interrupt or shout down our guest.” [MONTZ] This is not an endorsement. [EDWARDS] What we are hoping to engender tonight is an opportunity for people to ask tough questions. [MONTZ] Not by mindlessly regurgitating stale slogans. “Whether it’s the president-elect tweeting false murder statistics, proclaiming he saw thousands cheering the collapse of the twin towers, the president-elect and his surrogates are committed to lies. [MONTZ] And open engagement roots out hypocrisy in a way that censorship never could. “So, why do you deserve our trust?” [SPICER] I don’t think any communicator worth their salt can go out and tell a lie. This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period. “Does Sean Spicer remember saying this three weeks ago?” [SPICER] I don’t think any communicator worth their salt can go out and tell a lie. (bell rings) [MONTZ] Chicago has accomplished a miraculous feat of intellectual engineering. A place where reason and logic actually triumph over moral hysterics and partisan tribalism. But, can it survive? “The University of Chicago once again finds itself in a raging debate over free speech. A professor invited Steve Bannon, former top advisor to President Donald Trump, to speak there. [MONTZ] Unlike previous controversies, the strongest calls to censor are coming from within the University itself, with the undergraduate student government, 100 faculty members, and well over 1,000 alums demanding that Bannon be disinvited. The pressure seems to be working. Chicago has yet to set a date for Bannon’s talk. “Steven Bannon normalizes white supremacy.” “Steve Bannon is the symbol of white supremacy in this country.” “We won’t stand for white supremacy on campus.” (music) [MONTZ] What happens on this campus isn’t a quaint academic exercise. This is about building the brains we need to keep the American experiment running. (yelling)