"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Uses of Education

Which makes the Rockefeller Chapel on the UofC campus even more ironic.

It's a long read, but worth it, this article at Slate about "free speech" on the University of Chicago campus (a school I know mainly by reputation, through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and as the former home of Milton Friedman.  Neither is much of a recommendation, IMHO; then again, what do I know?).  What struck is how little times have really changed.

Boomers run the country now, undoubtedly, and yet as a group we act like our parents and the people running the world (slightly older than our parents, depending on when you were born in the Boomer generation; 'tis ever thus) when we were being born and growing up.  Activists and anti-war protestors and civil rights enthusiasts were denounced as leftists and ignorant and brainwashed and what have you back then, too.  Today, from reading this article, the cries come from wealthy donors and newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal, places that tend to imagine college campuses are still hotbeds of liberalism that need the strong medicine of contrary viewpoints like those espoused by Richard Spencer or Steve Bannon.

Why Richard Spencer, whose every utterance is simply aimed at antagonizing people who don't already agree with him (following the shtick of Ann Coulter) or Steve Bannon:

... a man whose primary accomplishment has been his work elevating a reality television star to leadership of the free world. Whatever else is happening to the university administratively, Chicago is still an institution that employs some of the best professors, lecturers, researchers, and former professionals in the world. Bannon’s last conceptual heavy lift was devising a cockamamie conspiracy theory to defend a pedophile running for United States Senate.
Because the invitations to Spencer and Bannon are seen as intellectual bravery, even intellectual activity, by those with money to donate, or a megaphone to shout through:

“People I know really feel proud that Zimmer articulated those views so eloquently,” billionaire alumnus and donor Joe Mansueto—namesake of one of the university’s library buildings—told Crain’s Chicago Business last month. “These are bedrock principles for the University of Chicago.” After Ken Griffin announced a $125 million gift to the university in November, Quartz’s Oliver Staley reported that the hedge fund CEO made the donation in part “because the university has been outspoken in its resistance to safe spaces and trigger warnings, eschewing policies on other campuses which Griffin sees as threatening free speech. In September, the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin advised readers against making contributions to any other elite university. “[T]hose wishing to support universities’ core missions can donate instead to institutions such as the University of Chicago,” he wrote, “whose president has stood firm against the social and political trends buffeting so many other elite campuses.”

Inviting someone like Spencer, wrote the Chicago Sun-Times in an editorial, is what:  “You might also call it an invitation: Join us in a thrilling, if not always comfortable, exchange of ideas.”  One wonders whether they often cheer this loudly for a white supremacist anti-semite.  Surely they don't regularly champion Mr. Spencer's ideas?  Or is it just the context of the "university" they think they are throwing stones at, and using the idea of "free speech" to do it?

Free speech, after all, is not simply about letting all voices be heard.  It is that in the abstract sense, on the public commons.  Spencer on a soap box at "Speaker's Corner" in Hyde Park might well be an excellent symbol of free speech, where all passersby are free to ignore him, although even there if the harangue became too obscene or too treasonous, it would undoubtedly soon cease to be "free."  But a university is a special space, and that special category has nothing to do with "safe spaces" or "social and political trends buffeting so many other elite campuses."  It has a lot to do, in fact, with what a university is for in the first place.

It is not a place to explore ideas society considers egregious and dangerous.  No classes should be offered in the virtues of the Nazis, or how the Holocaust was either false history or not such a bad idea after all.  Would those wealthy UC donors champion classes on eugenics, taking as their starting point Holmes dictum that "Three generations of imbeciles is enough!"?   Certainly there are ideas that don't need to be debated, much less encouraged.  The best response to Spencer in the article is from Geoffrey Stone, a professor at the U of C law school:  “From what I have seen of your views,” Stone replied, “they do not seem to me at add anything of value to serious and reasoned discourse, which is of course the central goal of a university.”  But the people supporting the idea of Richard Spencer or Steve Bannon on the UC campus (or any campus) aren't supporting Spencer or Bannon; they are supporting the idea of "sticking it to the man!"  Only, in this case, "the man" is a straw figure taking up space in their imaginations, one that exists only because "free speech" isn't allowed to drive him out into the sunlight, where the antiseptic nature of the UV rays will destroy him in a burst of flames.  They don't really care what Bannon or Spencer actually say; they just see them as the guy with the flamethrower, and fire is cleansing.

It's a poor commentary on intellectual life in these United States, but I don't know when it's ever been much better.  Aside from East Coast wealth which valued education as a marker of social status, making one akin to the European royalty who sent their children to elite institutions whether they could do the academic work or not (what did it matter, they were paying for it anyway), intellectualism in America was only ever valued in our brief history after World War II, and that because technology, in the shape of a single bomb powerful enough to end the war with Japan, fired the conviction that science (which takes education) was going to save us all.  Nutrition science changed the way we ate, teaching us to pay attention to what we put on the table and in our mouths.  Rocket science, once the standard of intellectual endeavor ("it ain't rocket science!"), put us in a "space race" with Russia, which we had to win among our children with the "new math" (and if you don't think that was a unifying national principle, you weren't alive to live through it).  "The Best and the Brightest" led Kennedy's administration into a future so bright we all had to buy shades.  Well, until it turned out we were being led by Robert McNamara, who never met a national issue he couldn't reduce to numbers, even as he couldn't figure out why the numbers refused to reflect reality (or why reality refused to believe his numbers).  It was a brief, glorious blaze, in which Albert Einstein was the smartest man alive and the living image of genius, if only because we knew somehow he was connected to the atomic bomb and the atomic age we'd all soon be living in thanks to human intelligence! (Still waiting for all the promises of that one; I, for one, will die very disappointed if I never get my flying car and electricity too cheap to meter!).  A blaze in which Reinhold Niebuhr could appear on the cover of Time Magazine because he was America's intellectual religious leader (soon to be replaced by Billy Graham, whom no one ever accused of being too smart).  Before the Vietnam War was over, the glow of the intelligentsia leading us to Paradise had long faded.

But then the intellectual leadership of America only really ever lasted as long as the stretch from Washington (known more as a general than a thinker) to Jackson (a span of only 6 Presidents and only 40 years.  I have minor personal possessions I've owned longer than that.).  What Americans have valued more than anything is argument, protest, harangue, and disagreement.  Do I overstate?  Consider the words of UChi President Zimmer and his university, used to close the Slate article:

“Part of the way we operate is that we’re a place where there’s constant open discourse, constant expression, constant argument,” he said. In a statement about the Bannon event, the university has declared it will uphold “the values of academic freedom, the free expression of ideas, and the ability of faculty and students to invite the speakers of their choice.” 

Constant argument of the kind championed bt Spencer and Bannon is not really pedagogical.  And the argument is constant only so long as that argument favors the status quo, and pokes an eye in "political correctness" that might come down in favor of blacks, Hispanics, Latino/as, the poor, the marginalized, the non-male (or non-hetero), who are not and should not be part of the status quo, except to mind their place in it.  The more they assert their place at the table, the more we must allow the Spencers and the Bannons to counter them, however much we might not want the Spencers and Bannons at our dinner parties.  The issue really is a simple one, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with free speech or listening to all voices or even inviting argument and open discourse.

It has to do with making sure the right people always know their place.  All the right people, and all the right places.


Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

I bet that none of them would take up the challenge of a rigorous formal debate with competent opponents. That is what is the real tradition of universities, not only the presentation of ideas, but testing them through dispute.

I reject the idea that all ideas must always remain held as open for acceptance. Nazism and Marxism are two ideas which have earned the status of being closed and rejected due to what they produced in real life. If innocuous holdings of science can be held as unacceptable due to them merely producing null results in artificial experimentation, holdings of politics that produce tens of millions of murders and those which are so similar that they hold the potential of that history being repeated are properly held to have been given the test of time and held to be more than must merely wrong.

In regard to the phony "freedom vs. equality" debate, it's pretty telling that "freedom" is so popular with fascists and Nazis and the domestic servants of the Putin mafia state. Not to mention the servants of our domestic oligarchs. People who supported Nazism were always free to say what they wanted to.

9:10 AM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

I'd never heard of this Luigi Zingales before, he seems to be more of an academic fop than a scholar, a media prof. He's exactly the kind of person who would want to get buzz for his brand by doing something stupid and outrageous. I wonder what the "debate" format will be and who the opponents will be.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Jordan Peterson. Who else?

10:58 AM  

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