April 15, 2011

Cultivating the habit of free inquiry

U of C students should constantly reflect on the importance of free inquiry, even in calm times

During my three and half years at the University of Chicago, a handful of incidents have challenged our notions of free and open inquiry, and sparked campus-wide discussions about how we live out this core value.

Although those discussions were important and useful, the examination of free and open inquiry is too important a subject to leave only for moments of controversy. The rigorous and respectful exchange of ideas is more than a lofty ideal or abstract concept—it is a habit we must cultivate, a value we must live each day and share with each new member of our community. Only when we make it part of our daily practice can we hope to bring this central commitment to bear on more difficult cases.

With that thought in mind, I think this moment of relative quiet is an opportune time to remind ourselves of the devotion to free inquiry that has been articulated over the years by UChicago leaders, faculty, staff, students, and alumni; the words have varied, but the core values have remained consistent and unwavering.

These values are manifested in numerous ways:

—An open and challenging dialogue in the classroom, in which assumptions and received wisdom are questioned and evidence is demanded for any assertion;

—Our willingness to share our thoughts on difficult or sensitive topics with others, even outside the classroom;

—The invitation of speakers, performers, and visiting scholars who represent a diverse array of strongly held viewpoints, along with the expectation that they will be open to questions and dialogue;

—Our interest in seeking out and understanding opposing points of view.

These values sound noble in the abstract, but living up to them can be very challenging. They must be protected, because they are at the very essence of this University and what makes it so special. In fact, the commitment to free inquiry and civil debate is all the more precious because it is in such short supply in other spheres of our lives.

The good news is, we do have a tradition at the University to support us. And as I watch students, faculty, and staff do their work here, I am impressed at how good members of our community are at soliciting and receiving multiple points of view, questioning assumptions while promoting more dialogue. This academic year our students have created a conference that focused on student activism, welcomed political leaders to campus, and provided spaces for students to practice inquiry and debate.

As a campus, it is not our goal during opportunities such as these to provide places where we are continually comfortable. Rather, efforts such as these seek to agitate us in a productive way that leads to intellectual and personal growth and development. It is this environment that makes possible the most innovative ideas and profound discoveries.

Living up to these ideals means conducting ourselves with respect for others. Former deputy provost Kenneth Warren noted that we must create an environment where all members of our community, regardless of their particular identities or backgrounds, “have a reasonable opportunity to participate in the University’s intellectual, scholarly, and public life.” That means avoiding personal attacks, and sharing our opinions openly and with integrity, rather than anonymously. It also means that if a particular exchange has given offense, we should take care to understand why our words may have offended another, and to learn from the other person’s perspective. Most of all it means taking the time to listen—really listen—to the expressions of others, whether or not we agree with them.

Of course we defend and live out these values within the campus community, but the University is also a member of a larger community, and a neighbor to thousands of residents on Chicago’s South Side. Our culture and values around open inquiry and civil debate have something to say about those relationships as well. Here we must take the time to understand the rich history and culture of our surrounding communities and the ways in which our actions, both large and small, affect our neighbors.

Our campus community lives through the activism and agency of our students, faculty, and staff. As we embrace that vibrancy on our campus, I encourage everyone—individually and as a community—to reflect periodically upon the University’s foundational values around free and open inquiry, to test these ideas, and to examine whether we are, indeed, making them a habit that will serve us during our time here and throughout our lives.

Kimberly Goff-Crews is the Vice President for Campus Life and the Dean of Students in the University.