Bret Stephens, the New York Times new conservative voice, brands Robert Zimmer, of the University of Chicago, as “America’s best university president.” As proof of Zimmer’s leadership, Stephens cites his embrace of contention, his refusal to create safe spaces, and his desire to use controversial speakers as opportunities for learning. “Free speech,” Stephens concludes, “is what makes academic excellence possible.”
This is farcical.
There is a deep irony embedded in all of this excitement about creating the conditions for free speech and dialogue, all of this concern about engaging young minds with the idealized principles of debate. Stephens goes on to cite Richard Spencer, the vile white supremacist who recently spoke at the University of Florida, as proof that civility matters more than feelings, as if it made good intellectual sense for students to listen to Spencer’s tired, boring ideas about race, and for a public institution to allocate considerable sums of taxpayer dollars to provide security – and a “safe space” – for racism. Forget feelings for just a second. Set aside all the pejoratives about “snowflakes” on campuses. Does any of this really make good intellectual sense? Why, really, do we want to retain ideas that have been thoroughly repudiated? After all, does Zimmer recruit flat-earthers to Chicago to debate geologists and astronomers? Does he ask students to weigh and consider the relative values of humoralism and modern conceptions of human biology? Does he sponsor contradictory lectures on pre-Newtonian physics, just so students have to listen and learn from the debate? I doubt all of this.
So why, on earth, would you want to educate students who might design a better public policy on immigration or housing or education by introducing them to the ideas about race and nation that originated in the 1920s? Or the 1850s? How does that pedagogy produce excellence? It doesn’t.
In a painfully obvious way, Stephens posits that white supremacy is a sort of special knowledge. Racism, sexism, and homophobia apparently aren’t, as Stephens sees them (and, he presumes, Zimmer, too) so old-fashioned, even if an entire generation of scholars say otherwise. Unlike rejected notions of blood flow, disease, and astrophysics, students, the logic goes, can still “learn” from racism, or be instructed by sexism, so long as they sit on their hands, open their hearts and minds, and be silent while a bath of bad ideas washes over them. Those ideas, Stephens implies, are durable and retain value beyond the shelf-life of their long-disputed intellectual merit.
If you say otherwise, or disagree with Zimmer and the University of Chicago, well, then, you are seemingly all about feelings and not about facts.
What concerns me, to be frank, is that we’re offloading the entire free speech debate onto the college campus, an offloading that reflects the extreme diminution of other public spaces over the last two generations. This takes universities, colleges, and schools away from their primary mission (the distribution of useful knowledge, epitomized by the classroom lecture) and highlights a secondary function: the valorization of great debates between warring ideas. Focusing on the role of campuses in staging debates flips our priorities. We simply shouldn’t be teaching things that are no longer scientifically valid. And white supremacy is one of those things.
People truly interested in free speech shouldn’t be celebrating the tough love of the University of Chicago. They should be mobilizing around an expansion of other public spaces, like libraries and public parks and town squares and newspapers, institutions that loom large in the legal history of free speech. That they aren’t doing those things – that they couldn’t care less about whether we have a robust press corps, well-endowed public libraries, and public greenspace on which to conduct these supposedly beloved debates – tells you that they really just want to burn the modern university to the ground. They don’t care about free speech at all.
Or, again, that they continue to see a use value in policy-making and pedagogy to white supremacy.