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August 30, 2016 6:40 am

Kudos to the University of Chicago on Commitment to ‘Rigorous Debate’

avatar by Jerold Auerbach

The University of Chicago. Photo: Wikipedia.

The University of Chicago. Photo: Wikipedia.

With a new academic year approaching, it was reassuring to read a headline declaring, “Free Speech Is the Basis of a True Education.” Following recent appalling examples of political correctness run rampant at Yale, Oberlin and elsewhere — with freedom of speech the primary casualty — University of Chicago president Robert J. Zimmer warned in The Wall Street Journal (August 26) that “Free speech is at risk in the very institution where it should be assured: the university.” In recent years, attempts to silence politically incorrect speech on campus have become the scourge of academe.

Students, President Zimmer wrote, can only realize the benefits of education if they confront ideas different from those that they brought with them to college. At the core of this intellectual process is “questioning” that requires “challenging assumptions, arguments and conclusions.” That, in turn, depends upon an academic environment that promotes “free expression and the unfettered exchange of ideas.” Universities, President Zimmer wisely concluded, must be the “crucible for confronting ideas,” not “a sanctuary for comfort.”

Consistent with President Zimmer’s appeal, a Wall Street Journal editorial noted, the dean of students had informed incoming freshmen that any desire for “‘safe spaces’ from discomfiting speech or ideas” would not override the university’s commitment to “rigorous debate.” So much for “trigger warnings” and the creation of protective barriers for timorous students who embrace the tenets of political correctness to stifle ideas that make them uncomfortable.

As a history professor for 45 years, I taught a course – first at Brandeis and then at Wellesley — on the history of freedom of speech in the United States, and the persistent attempts to stifle it. I retired in 2010, more or less unscathed from the waves of political correctness that swamped academic institutions. But not entirely.

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At Brandeis in the late sixties, when the campus New Left was inspired by former professor Herbert Marcuse and former student Angela Davis, among other radical luminaries, a fire was set in the building that housed the offices of the offending — i.e. conservative history and political science departments. Around the turn of the century, at Wellesley, the president and dean cravenly capitulated to the African-American male chairman of the Africana Studies department, whose intimidation of Jewish students and instigation of a law suit against a dissenting Jewish colleague the administrators shrugged aside.

Fewer than a handful of professors – three of us, as I recall – manned (no female colleagues joined us) online battle stations to defend students from a cascade of antisemitic slurs that focused primarily, but not exclusively, on Israel. Jewish students felt under siege, because they were. For nearly a year, I provided space in the History Department lounge for a dozen Jewish students to collectively share their anxiety and discomfort over the slanderous barrage of calumny against Israel – and Jews – that penetrated their classrooms and dormitories while college administrators remained silent.

I was heartened to read the University of Chicago dean’s encouragement to new students “to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.” It reminded me of my oft-repeated advice to students searching for the key to intellectual fulfillment: “Q and A: Question and Analyze.” Would that students everywhere would follow his lead.

Jerold S. Auerbach is Professor of History Emeritus, Wellesley College.

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