The University of Chicago, where I go to school, sent incoming first-years a letter warning that it doesn’t “support so-called ‘trigger warnings’” or “condone … intellectual ‘safe spaces.’” It was an unusually direct way of saying something that we’ve heard repeatedly from university administrators over the past two years: Chicago’s academic enterprise is founded on free speech, and any attempts to limit it are threats to our common project. Conservatives, especially conservative academics, often congratulate me on attending a place that resists such baleful signs of the times as speaker disinvitations and curricular overhaul.
Indeed, I’ve been grateful to spend the last two years at a place where the administration takes a firm line on controversial figures’ right to express themselves. As a member of Students for Life, I value the right to bring anti-abortion speakers to campus, which we do regularly and without incident. Also, I’ve learned a great deal from left-wing books and speakers and assume that the campus left would benefit from similar exposure to intelligent forms of conservatism.
The trouble is that having sat through two years’ worth of classes at Chicago—which is, remember, a university that prides itself on its students’ intellectual curiosity and commitment to the truth—I understand something of what campus activists are complaining about.
The protesters whom the campus right claims are destroying free speech often portray themselves as the real guardians of free speech, claiming that in a predominantly and historically white institution, the free exchange of ideas is structurally constrained to favor ideas that originate in privileged groups. The unspoken and unproven corollary is that “privileged ideas” are categorically different from “underprivileged ideas,” but in a nation as divided as ours, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that that’s occasionally going to be the case.
Here’s what the campus left says: Imagine a core social-science seminar in which the conversation turns to police brutality and racial bias. If the class consists of 20 students and reflects the racial composition of the college, one or two of them will be black. If these students’ attitudes towards police brutality reflect national averages, the black students will see a connection between police brutality and racial bias while a majority of their classmates won’t.
I can say from experience that young, intelligent, accomplished, opinionated, and arrogant students like the ones who populate classes at Chicago are not always attuned to other people’s most deeply felt concerns. What might be an intensely personal issue for the black students could easily be dismissed out of hand by the white majority.
The right tends to ask, well, why don’t the black students just speak up? But the point is that at the University of Chicago, speaking up is not always a simple or risk-free enterprise. You can perform the same thought experiment about rape victims in a discussion that touches on sexual violence: it’s not difficult to imagine how the noisy majority that knows only what it’s read in the newspaper could make class hard to bear for victims of severe trauma.
Hence, I assume, the call for “intellectual safe spaces.” But that sounds like a colossal failure of the whole project of liberal education—and at Robert Maynard Hutchins’s university, no less. And in fact I think that’s exactly what it is.
Pressures on liberal education come from the left and the right—although those terms are inadequate approximations, since campus politics never map well onto the real world. From the left come the campus activists, who believe, more or less, that Chicago’s traditional fetishization of rigor and the Western canon is almost literally destroying the lives of marginalized students. They are brilliant, well-armed with proof texts, and committed to transforming American higher education from the inside out. It’s their ideas and actions that so many universities across the country have reluctantly half-accepted and that Chicago prides itself on resisting.
On the right, there are the future consultants, the pre-professionals, the “organization kids.” They run the College Republicans, and for that matter the UC Democrats; they’re Chicago’s equivalent to the bipartisan coastal elite we hear so much about these days. They want to have fun at college and get some networking done, activities that often overlap if you play your cards right. For them, the core curriculum is a distraction (and sometimes a threat to their GPAs) and amenities are essential. When students complain online about grade inflation, gleaming dorms, and the rapid expansion of the fraternity system, they tend to respond with confusion or disbelief. They too are frighteningly smart; they know what they want out of life, and they are glad to have come to a school that is starting to figure out how to help them get it. They are unsympathetic or even actively opposed to calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces, but, crucially, they also seem uninterested in the kind of abstract, freewheeling debate that the campus left is trying to constrain.
Both sides question Hutchins’s vision for a university education that forces us into an encounter with difficult and even unpalatable ideas—with great thoughts that are not always also good thoughts. But while university administrators have made concessions to both sides, the pre-professionals are winning. In an effort to attract the well-connected, multi-talented students who populate Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, Chicago has been trying to shake off its monastic reputation for the past two decades. It’s introduced new, intensive majors, most notoriously the molecular-engineering program, which, like engineering programs everywhere, requires four years of absolute commitment and leaves little room for electives. Chicago always avoided introducing an undergraduate engineering major because of the rigors of Hutchins’s core curriculum, but that too is changing: core requirements were cut by a third in the ’90s, and new, easier sequences have been introduced in the social sciences and humanities to give harried engineers and econ majors a break.
Meanwhile, the university spends enormous sums on glass-fronted residential complexes, state-of-the-art student-recreation centers, a large and growing private army of security guards to assuage parents’ fears about the South Side, and a complex and well-funded career-advancement program. Robert Maynard Hutchins’s university is being managed like a multinational business. Chicago is making a bold investment in the kinds of programs and amenities that attract students with futures in finance—the future major donors of the world. And it’s paying off: the acceptance rate has dropped from 68 percent in 1995 to 7.6 percent this spring, while the percentage of applicants who accept offers of admission has risen sharply. Meanwhile, fully 20 percent of last year’s graduates went straight into jobs in finance or consulting. President Robert J. Zimmer and his colleagues have turned the UChicago brand around.
The war over trigger warnings and safe spaces, which was renewed this week in various online fora, suggests that this dramatic transformation has come at a heavy cost. In a conversation about how we treat one another in the classroom, it might be worth asking how exactly we might learn to make a place for one another, to acknowledge and respect the variety of human experience and suffering, to move beyond the intellectual arrogance that prevents us from having interesting, civil conversations about deeply personal problems. As it happens, those are some of the core aspirations of liberal education.
At one time, the University of Chicago might have been thought to be the one place above all others that was capable of preparing its students to acquit themselves well in difficult, valuable conversations about race, class, and violence. As my experience in seminars attests, though, Chicago is no longer fully committed to humanizing its students the old-fashioned way, through books and discussion. The left’s attacks on free speech may endanger the academic project, but the greater threat to the free exchange of ideas comes from academic corporatization. As long as that process continues unchecked, the university’s bold rhetorical defense of an art that it no longer teaches us how to practice will be nothing better than posturing.
Malloy Owen is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.