OP-EDS

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October 14, 2008

Mudslinging from the ivory tower

MFI supporters seem to think that only those in "the field" can have legitimate opinions about the controversy

[img id="76836" align="alignleft"] On Wednesday, in response to the great hullabaloo raised by the prospect of the Milton Friedman Institute (MFI), the full faculty of the University will convene for the rare and arcane ritual of debate. This solemn assembly shall perform rites and recite incantations neither seen nor heard since 1986, when astrological indicators last dictated that it should be so.

Times change. Back then, people didn’t have modern conveniences like segways and high-definition DVDs. They didn’t have to worry about malfunctioning iPhones or prions in their T-bone steaks.

Well, times have changed.

What with all the violence on TV these days, it’s no surprise to see the nasty epithets and unwarranted attacks hurled around: accusations of childishness, driveling, and manners of thinking unbecoming of a world-class university.

Our Ivory Tower is degenerating into a mud-brick playpen. Since we can’t decide how to play together, we just fling mud. Of course, this being the University of Chicago, the mud-slinging does have some decorum. It is a process of one-upmanship, where different accusations of academic integrity and expertise pick over the spoils of our University’s academic heritage, invoking their best tropes to gain the upper hand.

Two camps have emerged. The Institute’s detractors preach the merits of Chicago’s history of inter- and extra-disciplinary dialogue; its proponents revere our tradition of cutting-edge research and leadership in specific disciplines. In most cases there’s little reason these two perspectives can’t mesh well, but when questions arise that concern the whole University, they’re as different as Nancy Reagan and Nancy Pelosi.

MFI’s supporters point to the University’s privileged place in the field of economics and the importance of protecting its incumbency. Some claim that Milton Friedman’s name is an appropriate adornment because of his contributions to “the field,” with the policy implications of his work or the political philosophy derived from it seemingly beside the point. This economic theology, which takes the view of economics for economics’ sake, is appropriately objective and disinterested—disinterested in what non-economists have to say.

Take Naomi Klein’s recent talk as an example. The event’s sponsors intended for it to be a dialogue between Klein and the faculty committee that authored the proposal for the Institute. But none of the committee members accepted the invitation, so the audience had the full hour to mull over the meaning of their refusals. The general tenor of their remarks about having declined to appear, according to the Maroon’s news story, centered on Klein’s lack of scholarly credentials, the non-academic venue, and disinterest, plain and simple.

This might seem ill-boding for an institute devoted to free and open inquiry, but I wouldn’t doubt the sincerity of our scholars. No, the MFI’s proponents are surely committed to those lofty principles.

What we have is a simple misunderstanding, an ambiguity about “free” and “open.”

Klein cannot be party to free and open inquiry, for she is but a self-confessed “lowly journalist,” not a serious scholar. As for the conscientious objectors who signed a petition against the MFI, they are economic dilettantes, not economic scientists. How can experts be expected to debate those who lack the proper idiom and specialized knowledge?

You see, the MFI will be a center for open and diverse perspectives on economics and society—those of the Graduate School of Business and the Department of Economics.

So, whatever course researchers take at the MFI, we can be sure that they will steer clear of ideological excess and stick to unadulterated academic knowledge. They will engage in rigorous academic discourse at appropriate, scientific forums, but they will not succumb to the poetics and polemics of laypeople whose articulations of the world may lead to, as the Institute’s website says, the “design of public policy without regard to market alternatives.”

The MFI’s detractors are caught up in the belief that disciplinary insularity obscures our vision of the world. They are smitten with the promise that inter- and extra-disciplinary discourse, which takes seriously the plurality of situated knowledges that exist in the world, can help to check the disastrous consequences that come from narrow-minded idealism.

But after all, these people have contributed little to “the field.”

Marshall Knudson is a third-year in the College majoring in political science and romance languages and literature.