Where fun goes to die

It’s Saturday noon. Tens Hundreds of thousands of University students are highly inebriated and on their way to watching kickoffs.

But my thoughts turned earlier to the educational enterprise.

Several years ago Robert Zimmer was asked by an audience in China why the University of Chicago was associated with so many winners of the Nobel Prize — 90 in all, counting this month’s win by the behavioral economist Richard Thaler. Zimmer, the university’s president since 2006, answered that the key was a campus culture committed to “discourse, argument and lack of deference.”

[F]ree speech is what makes educational excellence possible. “It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears,” Louis Brandeis wrote 90 years ago in his famous concurrence in Whitney v. California.

It is also the function of free speech to allow people to say foolish things so that, through a process of questioning, challenge and revision, they may in time come to say smarter things.

If you can’t speak freely, you’ll quickly lose the ability to think clearly. Your ideas will be built on a pile of assumptions you’ve never examined for yourself and may thus be unable to defend from radical challenges. You will be unable to test an original thought for fear that it might be labeled an offensive one …

That is the real crux of Zimmer’s case for free speech: Not that it’s necessary for democracy (strictly speaking, it isn’t), but because it’s our salvation from intellectual mediocrity and social ossification. In a speech in July, he addressed the notion that unfettered free speech could set back the cause of “inclusion” because it risked upsetting members of a community.

“Inclusion into what?” Zimmer wondered. “An inferior and less challenging education? One that fails to prepare students for the challenge of different ideas and the evaluation of their own assumptions? A world in which their feelings take precedence over other matters that need to be confronted?”

These are not earth-shattering questions. But they are the right ones, and they lay bare the extent to which the softer nostrums of higher ed today shortchange the intended beneficiaries.

(Bret Stephens, profiling University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, emphasis added)

But I’m not sure that Zimmer’s answer to the Chinese is complete. He’s standing on the shoulders of Robert Hutchins:

After the 1939 season, Hutchins abolished football at Chicago University. And he did it during Christmas break, while the students were off campus.  This decision (along with Hutchins eliminating fraternities and religious organizations from campus) caused a decrease in enrollment and financial backing.

Now to his credit, Chicago became one of the premier schools in the country ….

Well, yes, there’s that, I suppose. Where fun goes to die and future Nobel laureates go to do whatever magic it is that makes Nobel laureates.

But I was surprised to learn that the University pioneered women’s sports and is still involved in intercollegiate athletics, having been a charter member of a unique Division III conference (as once it helped found the Big Ten):

In 1987-88, Chicago became a charter member of a new and unique NCAA Division III conference, the University Athletic Association. Comprised of some of the nation’s leading research institutions, UAA members include Brandeis University, Carnegie Mellon University, Case Western Reserve University, Emory University, Johns Hopkins University, New York University, the University of Rochester, and Washington University in St. Louis.

The UAA provides its member institutions and student-athletes with some of the best athletic competition in the country, as evidenced by the fact that the UAA has sent 129 teams to NCAA postseason play and has produced 11 national champions in its 11-year history. Many student-athletes at UAA institutions are capable of competing at the NCAA Division I level, but choose the UAA experience because of the unique combination of academic, athletic, and travel opportunities the Association afford its members.

 

Mitch Daniels has deservedly gotten much attention for innovations to prepare Purdue for a changing environment, but I see no sign that his vision is as bold as dropping out of Division I to focus more on education.

Is it okay that I had fun poking around a bit, reminding myself that Division III isn’t incompatible with first-rate education, and writing this?

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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.