In the WSJ today University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer has a strong op-ed on the purpose of a university. He writes:
The purpose of a university education is to provide the critical pathway by which students can fulfill their potential, change the trajectory of their families, and build healthier and more inclusive societies.
Students learn not only through the acquisition of specific knowledge, but also through the attainment of intellectual skills that serve them their entire life. Students come to appreciate context, trade-offs and data. They master how to recognize complexity, to argue effectively for their positions and to reconsider and challenge their own beliefs.
Students discover, too, that seemingly straightforward phenomena can have complicated cultural, historical and situational contexts that are critical to understanding their meaning. They realize that actions inevitably have multiple implications and that many decisions involve not simply choosing between “good” or “bad” but evaluating a set of consequences and uncertainties, both desired and undesired.
Students grasp the complexity of collecting, analyzing, interpreting and deriving meaning from evidence of multiple forms. They learn to imagine alternatives, to test their hypotheses and to question the accepted wisdom. A good education gives students the intellectual skills and approaches essential to success in much of human endeavor.
One word summarizes the process by which universities impart these skills: questioning. Productive and informed questioning involves challenging assumptions, arguments and conclusions. It calls for multiple and diverse perspectives and listening to the views of others. It requires understanding the power and limitations of arguments. More fundamentally, the process of questioning demands an ability to rethink one’s own assumptions, often the most difficult task of all.
In my time as a professor (15+ years) I’ve had talks protested, cancelled and seen journalists and colleagues campaign to have me silenced or even fired — all because the views that I expressed were deemed out of bounds. I’ve been harassed and threatened, lied about on the White House website and investigated by a member of Congress. And the topics that I have studied were not hot button issues like sex, gender or race, but about science and policy. I suppose that says something about the state of the science wars.
Perhaps more surprising to me than those who sought to shut down discourse was the small number of my colleagues willing to openly defend it or me. As one colleague said to me a few years ago, “I wish I could help, but I don’t want them to come after me too.” I get that.
That is why President Zimmer’s statements and the University of Chicago’s position is so welcome. (At the top of this post is a copy of his much-discussed letter to the class of 2020.) At some point in my career I would have scoffed at the idea that academic freedom needed defense. Not any more.