One theory why UChicago has so many Nobel winners

University of Chicago Professor Richard Thaler at the university after learning he had been awarded the 2017 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, on Oct 9, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

Several years ago, Mr 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 behavioural economist Richard Thaler.

Mr Zimmer, the university's president since 2006, answered that the key was a campus culture committed to "discourse, argument and lack of deference". Reflecting on that exchange in March, Mr Zimmer noted a depressing trend: While Chinese academics have made strides to "inject more argumentation and challenge into their education", their American peers are moving "in the opposite direction". As universities go, so ultimately goes the fate of nations.

The University of Chicago has always been usefully out of step with its peers in higher education - it dropped out of the Big Ten Conference and takes perverse pride in its reputation as the place where fun goes to die.

It was out of step again last year when dean of students Jay Ellison sent a letter to incoming freshmen to let them know where the college stood in respect to the campus culture wars.

"Our commitment to academic freedom," he wrote, "means that we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings', we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."

The letter attracted national attention, with cheering from the right and cavilling on the left. But its intellectual foundation had been laid earlier, with a 2015 report from a faculty committee, convened by Mr Zimmer, on free expression.

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 have never examined for yourself and may thus be unable to defend from radical challenges.

Central to the committee's findings: The aim of education is to make people think, not spare them from discomfort.

"Concerns about civility and mutual respect," the committee wrote, "can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community."

Those are fighting words at a time when professors live in fear of accidentally offending their own students and a governor needs to declare a countywide state of emergency so that white supremacist Richard Spencer can speak at the University of Florida.

They are also necessary words. That isn't because universities need to be the First Amendment's most loyal guardians - in the case of private universities, the First Amendment generally doesn't apply. They set their own rules.

Instead, it's because free speech is what makes educational excellence possible. "It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears," Justice 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 have 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 labelled an offensive one. You will succumb to a form of Orwellian double-think without even having the excuse of living in physical terror of doing otherwise.

That is the real crux of Mr 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?" Mr 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 short-change the intended beneficiaries.

They're also questions not enough university presidents are asking, at least not publicly and persistently. Instead, the prevailing conceit is that nothing is really amiss, that censorship concerns are overblown, that there are always creative ways to respect free speech while remaining sensitive to all sensitivities - a balancing act so exquisite that no student need ever be insulted, and no administrator need ever take a stand.

Mr Zimmer knows what bunk this is; that if free speech - never a popular idea to start with - isn't actively defended, it will rapidly be eroded. For using the prestige of his office to make the case both brilliant and blunt, he has become the most essential voice in American academia today.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2017, with the headline 'One theory why UChicago has so many Nobel winners'. Print Edition | Subscribe