The Case for Stanford’s UChicago Moment

The Case for Stanford’s UChicago Moment

The Review challenges Stanford to issue its own “UChicago letter” to affirm “the principle that debate or deliberation may not . . . be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed”.

Chic acceptance_letter

On August 24, the University of Chicago turned heads when it sent a letter to incoming freshman rejecting “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” as inimical to the university’s commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. The statement was brave, sensible, and inspiring, but peer universities greeted it with condemnatory silence.

Yet, there is no higher academic virtue than the “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” Universities that fail to uphold it cease to be universities.

The Review challenges Stanford to issue its own “UChicago letter” to affirm “the principle that debate or deliberation may not . . . be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed”. Though it would inevitably incur backlash from some of Stanford’s more vocal student groups, such a statement would send a concrete message that Stanford will actively stand behind, rather than pay mere lip service to, free debate and inquiry. It would go a long way towards creating a constructive, healthy environment for campus dialogue.

“Dialogue” would seem to be an uncontroversial goal. A commitment to spirited, constructive dialogue lies at the heart of the Review’s mission, and we often invoke it in our analysis of campus issues. However, in comments on Review articles, dialogue has been dismissed more than once by Stanford students as “futile”, “inadequate”, and even “harmful”. And these attacks are not anomalies. Open dialogue and vigorous debate are coming under fire across college campuses, more so than at any other time in our national history.

But dialogue remains the most reliable path to progress. While radical behavior may turn heads, it breeds reaction and backlash rather than compromise and consensus. Unfortunately, we have often seen firsthand that Stanford students don’t seem to agree. After the Reviewproposed a mandatory Western Civilization course for undergraduates, staff members faced ad hominem attacks and commentators on Facebook tried to silence debate, calling the initiative “colonial-fetish” and “trash”.

Though the resulting ballot initiative did not pass, it helped spark a campus-wide debate about the role of the humanities in undergraduate education. Whereas a radical cause would have been frustrated, Western Civ’s willingness to engage with counter-arguments and counter-proposals and flexibility on the implementation of the initiative yielded a successful compromise: Stanford’s new humanities core, which resembles the Review’s proposal in many ways, was rolled out two years ahead of schedule.

A cause that refuses to moderate through dialogue is self defeating. It tends towards dangerous intolerance, such as when an ASSU senator made allegedly antisemitic remarks last spring. It overlooks internal weaknesses that doom it to later failure, like when Fossil Fuel Free Stanford’s refusal to compromise ultimately led to their agenda being vetoed. It even alienates potential allies, such as when the intransigence and scale of the Who’s Teaching Us demands radicalized the fight for faculty “diversification”. What can a radical student movement hope to accomplish when it marginalizes the unconverted and dismisses their views?

Dialogue, by contrast, moderates radical causes. Forced to confront opposing, rational arguments, a cause must compete in the “marketplace of ideas.” Those convinced of the “stupidity” of a cause, consequently, have no excuse to silence it. Instead, they should embrace the marketplace of ideas as the perfect mechanism for vindicating their position. If Western Civ had really just amounted to “right-wing rag . . . trash”, then open debate would have shown this to be the case.

These points may seem obvious. But they have been dismissed and even attacked by several significant student movements in recent years. Those who endorse the rallying cry “No justice, no dialogue!” (which ignominiously appeared in an email chain attacking Provost John Etchemendy) have reversed a basic premise of democracy: justice is impossible without civic discourse. As Provost John Etchemendy’s reply succinctly parried, “No dialogue, no understanding!”

This is not to trivialize the fact that constructive dialogue can be hard. It requires discussing difficult topics and hearing uncomfortable arguments without simply condemning the character of those with whom you disagree. A lack of dialogue, however, generates frustration and, over time, kindles alienation and rebellion. Donald Trump’s popularity depicts the consequences of ignoring minority grievances. Win or lose, Trump will receive over 40% of the popular vote with a frighteningly amorphous platform and dangerous temperament. Had the Republican Party truly involved its voter base in real conversations when drafting its platform, it could have moderated Trumpism into a constructive, mainstream political platform before voters turned in desperation to Trump.

When large majority views are ignored, a lack of dialogue can be more dangerous still. Despite 91% student opposition to the university’s new hard alcohol ban, not a single neutral and accessible conversation was held to discuss the policy since it was first announced last March. The administration’s silent and unilateral implementation of the policy has inflamed student opposition, undermined the ban’s legitimacy, and pitted the administration against the student body. These are hardly harbingers of success for a policy whose safe execution depends on student cooperation.

Not all forms of dialogue, however, are made equal. Who participates in a conversation and how they do so is just as important as the way in which a conversation is designed. Crafting opportunities for effective dialogue is an undeniably difficult challenge for the administration, and it has certainly made effort. But it can do more.

From OpenXChange to discussions on the Western Civilization ballot initiative, uncivil conduct, problematic starting premises, and a lack of true accessibility plagued efforts for productive campus conversation last year. At its inaugural event, OpenXChange suffered from an audience seemingly self-selected to agree with the panelists. “Dialogue” on the Western Civilization ballot initiative was almost exclusively attended by those who either strongly supported the proposal or vehemently opposed it and so unsurprisingly featured some decidedly uncivil comments. In both cases, dialogue fell short because too few and not a broad enough spectrum of people were involved.Stanford students may not spit on their peers, but civil discourse has yet to become a staple of campus life.

Stanford students have opinions (often strong ones) on important subjects. Too often for them, however, dialogue is too much effort for too few results. The challenge is thus twofold: students must be convinced of the usefulness of dialogue, and they must be incentivized to take part in it.

Tackling this challenge will not be easy. Starting conversations in an environment where orthodoxies — such as the value of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”, the importance of diversity for its own sake, and cultural relativism — go increasingly unchallenged is bound to be an uphill battle. A commitment to any shared principle is hard enough to foster in an environment as diverse, dynamic, and innovative as Stanford. One as fragile and beaten-down as free discourse and inquiry is almost impossible to nurture without institutional support. Issuing Stanford’s own “UChicago letter” would be the best way to start.

In its founding grant, Stanford pledged to teach “the blessings of liberty” and advance “the fullest possible liberty of speech”. Without healthy, civic, and open dialogue, we lose our claim to be a place of higher learning.

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