Leaning Further Left Isn’t an Educational Framework

Contrary to Noah Tesfaye’s recent column, the IOP is not a bastion of conservative thought.

By Matthew Pinna

In Noah Tesfaye’s latest column, “Why UChicago’s IOP Should Abandon Its Non-Partisan Approach,” he asks the Institute of Politics to “tell the truth about politics.” The truth Tesfaye demands, of course, is one that agrees entirely with his world view. Tesfaye’s argument not only fails to provide an effective means for educating people about his “truths,” but is also based in utter nonsense: Leftist politics, far from being excluded from the IOP, are more than welcome in its halls. Pretending otherwise, when the facts are easily found, is nothing more than inventing a problem where none exists for the sole purpose of clamping down on opposition. 

Tesfaye’s overall argument is that the IOP doesn’t have a clear “educational philosophy,” lacking “a thorough, comprehensive political education that teaches [students] everything in an honest, just manner.” This is primarily because the IOP claims to be nonpartisan, which, he argues, is an inherently disingenuous stance to take. For Tesfaye, being nonpartisan or balanced is “not just unhelpful, but flat-out impossible.” To pretend otherwise, he says, is just a smokescreen for those too “reluctant” to admit the truth.

This argument is reminiscent, and likely entirely drawn from, the critique of the “enlightened centrist,” itself a pejorative term, describing a person whose politics start and end with “both sides having very good points.” The enlightened centrist is too intellectual for the petty squabbles of party politics and makes sure to let everyone know just how smart that makes them. Once you get past their enlightened veneer, though, you’re left with someone obsessed with appearances over action—all talk and no walk. After all, how useful is a person who, when asked to make a choice between two different solutions, simply points out that both come from valid perspectives?

Tesfaye’s column, however, incorrectly conflates rightful condemnation of enlightened centrism with the Institute of Politics’ nonpartisanship, which operate in completely different fashions. His argument would be valid if the Institute of Politics were teaching its students—likely future political actors—to, likewise, be nonpartisans. Generating graduates who, then, would be too afraid to take meaningful political action completely fits Tesfaye’s point that such students would not know how to “engage” with politics.

But does the Institute of Politics actually run, or even claim to be run, in a manner similar to that of a nonpartisanship factory? Of course not. The IOP is effectively a forum through which politicians, activists, and other relevant speakers are invited to talk to students. Students aren’t forced to attend sessions, nor are they ever told by the IOP not to form their own opinions. To borrow a term from Tesfaye, the IOP’s “pedagogy” is to offer students a buffet of political perspectives, from which the students themselves can craft their own diets. Any lack of knowledge on how to engage with politics, then, would appear to rest with students, not the IOP.

Here’s where Tesfaye’s second argument enters the picture, which itself has two parts. Firstly, he argues that the speakers that the IOP invites aren’t actually any good, a result of biased selection and not with regard to their intellectual merit. He accuses the IOP and Axelrod of having an “agenda,” which places the IOP’s stated mission of political education beneath “hosting associates of overtly fascist leaders and neoliberal politicians.” Second, he claims that the IOP outright excludes leftist thought from its offerings. “Black radical and revolutionary organizers, communists, and socialists are not invited nor involved at the IOP,” posits Tesfaye in the second-to-last paragraph. Both are extremely contentious arguments and neither stand up to closer inspection.

His column brings up four examples, out of the dozens upon dozens of politicians and community workers who have been invited over the range of years at hand: General Jim Mattis, former President Barack Obama, and General Colin Powell. The fourth, Steve Bannon, was not actually invited by the IOP, nor did he even speak on our campus, so one has to wonder why he is included in an op-ed specifically about the IOP. Regardless, what do a four-star Marine Corps general of the United States Joint Forces Command, 44th President of the United States, and a four-star Army general and secretary of state have in common? According to Tesfaye’s column, it is that they don’t have “novel insight” and offer only “talking points you can find anywhere else.”

I, for one, can’t believe we’re wasting valuable speaker spots on absolute losers like the  President of the United States. You might not agree with the man’s political opinions, but to say that Barack Obama might not have valuable knowledge for students is indicative of the merits of Tesfaye’s argument. Tesfaye’s solution, fluff aside, doesn’t actually change how the IOP functions. For all of his talk of truth, comprehensiveness, and establishing “a pedagogy of political education,” all he’s really asking throughout his entire column is that the IOP only invite speakers that he likes and nothing more. It’s the equivalent of waving your hands and shouting “pedagogy” a few times, expecting a real solution to insert itself. More accurately, then, it would appear that the IOP does educate students politically, just not in a way that he agrees with. Rather ironically, Tesfaye, instead of “having a clear political education vision for students…merely claims vaguely that students will learn from speakers.”

But what about community organizers and those who dare to challenge the “American settler-colonial project?” Are they, as Tesfaye claimed, “not invited to speak at the IOP?” He could have asked that question himself, directly to speakers at such panels like “Big Shoulders, Big Change: Community Organizing in Chicago,” or to the creator of The New York Times’s 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who visited campus in 2019.

None of this was hidden information, tucked away on the IOP’s website to rob students of a balanced political education. Instead, all of this information could have easily been found with a painless Google search, and, in fact, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s IOP event was covered with a glowing spotlight from UChicago’s official news page. I’m left wondering why, when all of this information was readily available, Tesfaye felt the need to expound upon how, as a leftist, his viewpoints are not allowed and discriminated against by the IOP.

Finally, the Institute of Politics might have good speakers and invite leftists—both contrary to what he wrote—but is its board filled with those who are inclined towards “hosting associates of overtly fascist leaders and neoliberal politicians”? In other words, is the IOP secretly conservative, more concerned with a hidden agenda than educating its students?

If that’s the case, they’re doing an awfully bad job of proving it. Before COVID, the IOP staff graciously allowed the College Republicans to host their meetings in its illustrious basement. Out of the 108 internships listed on the Institute of Politics 2020-2021 Internships database, only five are conservative: Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, the Hoover Institution, Fox News, the Hudson Institute, and The Bulwark, with the last one subscribing to that label rather loosely. Finally, in fall 2019—the last truly pre-COVID quarter—out of all the speakers listed in the IOP’s speaker series, only two were Republicans: Congressman Will Hurd (R-TX) and Brian Hook.

Let me be clear: You can think that the Institute of Politics is a failing institution. That’s a line of argument that can be based on some sort of valid opinion, and we can have a productive conversation about that. What you cannot claim—unless you willfully ignore facts or decline to research them—is that its students aren’t free to engage with leftist ideas, much less the needs of the community. The IOP does a good job at encouraging students to explore issues in the South Side, in part through its speakers, but also through its numerous civic engagement opportunities. If a student is so inclined, they could receive an IOP grant of up to $2,000 to “meet a demonstrated community need.” Projects include LegUP Woodlawn, which helps local students prepare for college; New Americans UChicago, an organization that assists residents in applying for American citizen; and the Chicago Peace Corps, a group that holds “weekly discussions about restorative justice, community development, and related topics” and offers volunteering opportunities. 

I would have had no problem with Tesfaye’s column had he been upfront and honest about wanting the Institute of Politics to move further to the left. Obscuring his true motives and employing outright falsehoods in appeals to “truth,” however, rings of nothing more than disingenuity. If you want to encourage the dissemination of knowledge about your politics, you can go ahead and do that—the Chicago principles and the Institute of Politics not only allow for it, but better enable it. To pretend that leftists are somehow being unfairly discriminated against, though, is nothing more than a persecution complex at a university where such ideas are more than welcome. 

Matthew Pinna is a fourth-year in the College.