Inhibiting Instruction

“Instructing Insurrections” advocates for limiting the range of intellectual discourse on campus; a vaguely defined system that forbids criticism and posits its infallibility is the beginning of totalitarianism.

By Eric Vanderwall

In her January 24 article “Instructing Insurrections,” Kelly Hui attempts to argue that the actions of Ivy League alumni Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Donald Trump, particularly in relation to the failed coup on January 6, are a result of their Ivy League educations. Hui goes on to describe the outcry at professor Luigi Zingales’s suggestion in 2018 that Stephen Bannon appear at the University of Chicago for a debate. She asserts that such an appearance would have constituted an endorsement on the part of the University and could have had a “potentially radicalizing” effect on young people with “hate in their [hearts].” The refusal to engage with views other than one’s own is particularly important if, as in the case of Bannon, these views are being espoused by highly placed and influential political figures. Obstruction and termination of such events, presumably how Hui has “[reimagined] free speech on campus,” may prevent hypothetical “radicalization” of current students who could become “the next Ted Cruz” or “the future Josh Hawley,” but it also does a disservice to the very marginalized people Hui claims to protect in withholding from them information necessary for persuading others to their cause. And ultimately, Bannon and others like him emerge from such campus furor looking like persecuted dissident thinkers, which serves them more than their opposition.

Although Hui asserts that the role Cruz and Hawley played in obstructing Biden’s confirmation and inciting the coup attempt is a result of their attendance of prestigious universities, this connection is never proven. A brief investigation reveals that both Hawley and Cruz were rebuked in statements signed by alumni and current students of their respective alma maters, and as of January 17, 573 of Cruz’s own Princeton classmates had signed a statement condemning him for trying to “undermine democracy and our Constitution by improperly challenging the election” of last year and its results. If these men are in the minority—two out of several hundreds of undergraduate and graduate classmates—in their views and deeds, and receive public rebuke from their own, it’s disingenuous to claim that their educations and recent actions are directly related. There is no demonstrable causal connection and not even a significant correlation. Cruz and Hawley are outliers, not exemplars.

The other lines of reasoning in the article are more like circles. Hui asserts that conservatism “[disguises] bigotry as love of country” and “hate speech as meaningful debate,” yet there are no definitions or examples evident. The author also makes the equally unfounded obverse claim that her views “do not do any harm” and “do not inspire hate and fear.” Readers are thus presented with two related conclusions: “conservative” opinions are hateful and the author’s are not—no justification is provided for this. This is using a conclusion as its own justification, as if it were an axiom without need of proof. Further, the sanctimonious certainty of one’s own rectitude precludes the possibility of discourse. The existence of unstated criteria that categorically exonerate the views of the author and condemn her opponents invokes the specter of a nascent totalitarian ideology. Who is granted the authority to define the bounds of acceptability? Who defines the meanings of the terms “hate” and “bigoted,” each of which appears in Hui’s article five times? The connotations of these terms—and others such as “problematic” and “white supremacy”—have changed drastically in the last few years. Wouldn’t Hui’s proposal for enforced orthodoxy reify the currently dominant ideas as dogma? How can people talk about anything if there is a constant risk of reprisal from the authority overseeing acceptable thought? Perhaps strangest of all, even people who mostly agree with each other would be unable to converse because there is no room for nuance and no allowance for ideas to evolve over time.

Hui’s article is founded on two assumptions: that consciousness is static, and that the purpose of a university is to inculcate an ideology. Hui’s argument is that Hawley’s and Cruz’s actions are a direct consequence of their university educations, which did “exactly what [they were] meant to do.” This belief rests on an assumption of human nature being a fixed thing that emerges from undergraduate studies ossified in its final form. A view of people that denies the possibility and reality of lifelong change is erroneous and is actually in conflict with the purpose of education, which is to change the mind in ways subtler than acquiring more information. If human nature were static, the university endeavor, and even attempts to change people’s minds (a fitting figurative description), would be moot.

The second assumption is likewise disconcerting. The historical role of liberal arts universities, such as the University of Chicago, has been to train students to be public intellectuals, even if the spheres of influence for most extend no farther than their workplaces and families. A society needs a class of people trained to think critically and who are living repositories of the wisdom accumulated through the ages. This is the reason for the University of Chicago’s Core program for undergraduates and the few remaining comparable curricula at other schools. Students are thus taught a set of methods rather than a set of outcomes: they are taught how to think, not what to think. Such an approach ensures the continuation of rigorous, thoughtful inquiry throughout the life of a university graduate and from one age to the next, as the process of coming to knowledge is learned anew by each generation. This is the ideal, anyway.

Hui takes the opposite stance in asserting that the university should instruct students in appropriate thoughts rather than sound methods of thinking. In asking why the University of Chicago cannot take a cue from Twitter, she reveals a disturbing vision for the purpose of a university. Twitter, one of many so-called social media platforms, is a publicly traded corporation that allows people to publish digitally in a limited fashion, for which privilege they view advertising; Twitter’s primary objective is to enrich its shareholders. The modern university, by contrast, originated in medieval Europe to educate clerks and monks. These schools initially served to train the Church’s non-pastoral intellectual professional class, which meant that their duty was not only to individual students, but to the community, the faith, and posterity. The religious aspect has waned, but the university has always been part of an endeavor grander than the individual and the present day, which often requires challenging the individual, or even the entire generation, to strive for something greater. Religious thinkers have called this God; secularists of the last few centuries would call this a higher calling or truth or wisdom or insight.

Twitter and other so-called social media platforms gratify base, immediate impulses. It is therefore disturbing to read that the university, one of the few remaining bastions of something that teaches people how to transform information into knowledge and from knowledge into wisdom, should be scrapped. Hui neglects to take her idea to its logical conclusion, which is that the university would no longer be a place to foster new ideas or for students to learn the skill of inquiry; it would be a place for indoctrination, where anything less than absolute conformity is subject to punishment. On pedagogical grounds alone, this seems a poor plan. When people are penalized for having unusual, unsettling, bad, or wrong ideas, rather than made to defend them, they can never learn.

Elimination of opposing views on campus is a disservice to the very ideas that are supposedly being protected. What happens after graduation, when alumni inevitably encounter opposing views? They have never before met with anyone unlike themselves, so they do not know how to communicate, and they certainly don’t know how to explain their positions.

Establishment of a campus orthodoxy also fails to answer the larger problem of a society that increasingly self-segregates. Removing unacceptable viewpoints from campus might make some students feel safer during their studies, but those views have not been disproven, only displaced. On the contrary, the fashion for shutting down events with threats and protests empowers inflammatory public figures whose narrative is one of persecution. The university would have abrogated its responsibilities to its students, to the community, to the future, and to the thinkers of the past who toiled to give us our knowledge.

The specter of totalitarianism lurks behind Hui’s hollow endorsement of safety and tolerance. A totalitarian worldview is one that refuses inquiry and posits its eternal, revealed truth while employing vague, undefined terms such as “counterrevolutionary” or “problematic” to vilify perceived opponents. A totalitarian ideology, even one ostensibly undertaken to protect the weak, leads down only one path, and that path is violence. If people are not allowed to speak and to disagree, and through dialectic and argument, learn and change, there can be no communication. And if people cannot talk to one another, what does that leave us? Destruction.

Eric Vanderwall is a graduate student in the humanities.