As we enter the new year, a faint signal off in the distance suggests that the University of Chicago remains a small haven of freedom in a sea of elite, politically woke schools. UChicago, though imperfect, stands steadfast in its commitment to its educational principles.
Having taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, I especially appreciate UChicago’s time-honored dedication to campus free speech.
The Kalven Report
Anyone who is appreciative of UChicago’s principled culture owes a debt of gratitude to the Kalven Report. Former UChicago President George W. Beadle championed that document’s creation back in 1967 because it laid out the university’s view on social and political action, which was vital during a time where Vietnam War protests had erupted on college campuses nationwide.
The report emphasized the importance of the school’s mission “to provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions.” The school recognized its role as a platform or public square—not the voice or speech itself—because no entity or group can be a neutral arbiter of truth. Ultimately, intellectual curiosity comes from hearing views with which we disagree
Learning happens through disagreement and confrontation of a person’s ideas and thoughts, not from falling down our echo chamber of choice.
The Free-Speech Cold War
The Vietnam War milieu that inspired the Kalven Report is long gone, but in its place is a sort of cold war being waged on college campuses around the country. Propaganda is a popular tool in these conflicts. Similarly, in recent years, those with power and influence have pushed to limit speech when it doesn’t align with the current narrative. They have taken it upon themselves, as the purveyors of truth, to decide what ideas are labeled as misinformation—of course, as a tactic to combat what they are telling us is “propaganda.”
There is clearly pressure to think a certain way. Consider the many instances where newspapermen and politicians disseminated narratives contrary to the truth, such as the mantra by the media of “safe and effective” surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. Those in power and the media said that the vaccine would stop the spread, that it was safe for all and benefited the immune system. Many making these claims allowed little to no discourse, showed a complete lack of nuance, and despite their claims, there are concerning safety signals. In reality, all the pressure from the media and government to stop the spread were not based on clinical trials of reducing the spread effectively.
Further, they purported that staying home and masking saves lives, despite it damaging our most crucial segment of the population: children. During their most impressionable ages, we planted in them the seeds of conformity and subjected them to degraded education and worsening mental health. The American Academy of Pediatrics and two other prominent children’s medical organizations announced a national state of emergency in children’s mental health. In a similar dispatch, the CDC cited many statistics— including a 26% rise in attempted suicides in girls aged 12-17 over periods during the summer of 2020, with one week in late winter of 2021 showing a 51% rise compared to the year prior.
Instead of ceding more power to a “ministry of truth”—allowing a small group to decide for us what ideas are right and wrong—the appropriate counter to propaganda is more information and open dialogue. If instead we allow one entity to control the messaging, we will fall prey to manipulation more easily, which is exactly the thing we want to avoid.
UChicago: An Incubator for Free Speech
This is why it is so important that UChicago stands apart from the crowd in its handling of free speech. The university’s environment for open dialogue, a university-wide policy for nearly sixty years, welcomed several controversial speakers during the 2021-2022 school year to campus to share their stories and insight. Other campuses would not welcome or allow many of these speakers, such as James Lindsay and Yeonmi Park.
That is evidenced by incidents like MIT blocking a lecture from U Chicago Professor Dorian Abbot and, most recently, Princeton firing tenured professor Joshua Katz, where they reopened a previously closed investigation from 2018—six months following the article in the Quillette as justification to remove him.
The best part about UChicago is watching the quality of education unfold when students act professionally, ask intelligent questions, and invite the speaker into the discussion. Here, disputes can be worked out through debate and questioning, not by strong-arming, name-calling, or bombarding the administration to cancel an event. It is understood that listening doesn’t equate to acceptance, but it does offer an opportunity to hear different viewpoints. Additionally, when you hear voices you don’t agree with, it also presents an opening to gain a more tactical perspective.
Sadly, students at many other schools are not exposed to the thoughts of others, as their institutions fold to the demands of the small-yet-vocal woke mob.
Why Doesn’t UChicago Market the Most Positive Externality of All?
The once powerful tool to silence the opposition, cancel culture, has lost its gravitas and is now mocked by many. Freedom of speech is edging in, gaining momentum, and slowly coming back in style.
There is some evidence of a cultural shift back to favoring free speech over censorship as seen by Elon Musk’s Twitter purchase and subsequent reinstatement of banned accounts, outpouring support for Salman Rushdie as a defender of freedom of speech,Netflix’s updated “cultural guidelines,” or the Department of Homeland Security pausing its “Disinformation Board” nearly as soon as it was announced after being mocked by politicians and citizens who were concerned about this overreach of power. For now, you will not hear the University of Chicago boast about these free-speech policies or the fact that they are once again ranked the highest for being a free-speech university, according to the Foundation for the Individual Rights in Education.
Given UChicago’s many positive qualities, such as its programs, rankings, prospects for jobs after graduation, it is less likely students select it due to its high standards for freedom of speech. Despite this, students benefit from a better education as a result of the school’s liberal speech policy and ability to continue to navigate these rough, dogmatic seas and keep their liberty ship upright.
That unique element differentiates UChicago, so the administration would be remiss not to market it.
If the school doesn’t broadcast its open discourse, it will attract more extremely smart, well-performing emulators who conform to the wills of more powerful people. Though it may not seem obvious at first, obedience was a large part of that recipe for many of us to arrive at a top-tier school today. The difference is that UChicago should not just be another stepping stone; it should be a destination.
Considering the long list of accomplishments of our alumni, UChicago exists for free thinkers who aren’t here to learn how to make better, faster widgets, but instead are here to change the trajectory of history. We need bold and brave leaders just as much as we need highly educated ones. So many institutions, UChicago included, claim they want to attract and develop leaders who will act bravely, ask tough questions, and push back against the boundaries, not those who conform and follow along. But while I’d like to think our university is the exception and welcomes opposition, their arbitrary COVID policies over the past year speak otherwise and highlight that they too are not perfect or impervious to politics.
That is precisely why free speech is so vital to UChicago. It differentiates them compared with other elite universities who too often are giving into the demands of the few. The school would gain more free-thinking applicants and give other schools a clearer model to follow if it choose to embrace its legacy of free speech.
The tide is turning, albeit slowly, and people across the ideological spectrum are growing hungry for a clear signal of truth and intellectual discourse instead of being told what to think. After many years of serving my country, I wanted to go to a school whose values align with the nation I swore to protect and I want to believe this institution shares those same values and love for this country. To the university, do not follow the siren call off in the distance of the woke mob; not only are they losing relevance, but they aren’t producing anything of value. Instead, continue doing what the institution does best and be the platform to produce people who change of course of history.
* The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.