Is The Chicago Thinker the New “Chicago School” of Journalism, Politics, and Law?

Some Thoughts On the University of Chicago’s New Conservative Student Newspaper

“In place of seeing a mature person as a source of rational discourse, we might see them as reacting appropriately to situations, in terms of disciplined perception. Today we have techniques of manipulation on a scale that would have made Callicles proud. If there is only persuasion, Plato warns us, there is no discourse except the confrontation of power and propaganda. If we cannot draw the line, he says, all means of persuasion will be acceptable. Violence may be done to us in crude or subtle ways. Even worse, we may not be aware of it.” — David Kolb, Postmodern Sophistications

“The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.” — Allan Bloom

I’m an alumnus of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, a former CEO, and an author. Like many alumni, I have various kinds of interaction with my alma maters that range from casual interest to support or collaboration. It is as a parent of college students, however, that the modern university captures my keenest attention: there is much that is inspiring on campus, but also much that is troubling.

The trouble is that too many students aren’t asking enough tough questions. I believe the new Chicago Thinker student newspaper is starting to do that, and is thereby bringing back the older tradition of dissident criticism known as the Chicago School. The Thinker’s staff recently got tested by none other than a former U.S. president, as well as by media personalities, at a recent Institute of Politics event—and they didn’t back down. They showed an aptitude for disciplined perception, a hallmark of the traditional Chicago School.

The University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics (IOP) is a political project run by former Obama White House advisor and political election consultant David Axelrod. The IOP claims, with much difficulty, to function as a non-partisan extracurricular program “designed to inspire students to pursue careers in politics and public service.” At a recent conference on “disinformation,” it hosted media members, all progressive, and featured former president Obama as part of his promotional tour advocating for private speech regulation. The audience largely comprised sympathetic students, faculty, and others who generally fielded “softball” questions—that is, until a small minority of Chicago Thinker staff stood up and confidently challenged the speakers. Among the journalistic bias was a comment by The Atlantic’s Anne Appelbaum who declared the Hunter Biden laptop scandal to be “irrelevant.” The rest of the panel was fairly combative, and with tacit approval by Axelrod, the conference underscored what some believe to be excessive leftism on America’s college campuses.\

[Related: “Winged Words”]

When I was in graduate school at UChicago back in the mid 1990s, the undergraduate college was relatively small (fewer than two thousand students) and the professional schools were largely politically neutral. They focused on preparing adults for specific qualifications in law, business, medicine, and science. Today, the undergraduate college comprises nearly 7,000 students, nearly all of whom seem to be modern liberals with little interest in alternative views. Likewise, the graduate schools are now ideologically homogenous.

Many young adults on our nation’s college campuses may be too busy to care or notice, but the larger institutional drift into homogeneity is one that doesn’t receive sufficient attention or critical response. The students at the Chicago Thinker have, however, established a beachhead in that critical void. In some important ways, it is precisely what the storied Chicago School is all about: initiative, entrepreneurship, and an ability to criticize—to stand up and object, to question and think, and, in short, to exercise the vital muscle of individuality.

The traditional “Chicago School” was defined by such dissident individuality. It goes by various descriptions today, but it was centered in certain departments: the Philosophy Department under Dewey, Mead, Angell, Moore, and Rorty, was one. The Economics Department with Friedman, Knight, Viner, Telser, Stigler, and Veblen was another example; so was the Law School with Director, Posner, Epstein, and Coase. In Political Science, there were several dissenting individuals, including Arendt, Strauss, Cropsey, and now Mearsheimer.

But what of the students? Our highest hope as parents is that they find some way to establish the mental habits of rational thought and poise, which allow them to function productively and resiliently. One might call it a “Chicago School” of thought leadership. In this regard, it is hard not to notice how some up-and-coming student leaders may embody this ideal. More than that, however, they may have started to reinforce a broader tradition of campus free speech and free thought, one that is confident and unapologetic, but open-minded and directed. It is an example of an uncorrupted hunger for truth that our young adults can summon amid an environment of intellectual pluralism.

As the motto of the Illinois Supreme Court says, Audi Alteram Partem: Hear the other side.


Image: Rick Seidel, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Matthew G. Andersson

Matthew G. Andersson is a science and technology professional, former CEO, and author. He has been featured in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize report by the Chicago Tribune, and attended the University of Chicago, Yale University, and the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of the upcoming book "Legally Blind” regarding ideological effects on law schools and the judiciary. He has testified before the U.S. Senate, and the Connecticut General Assembly concerning higher education.

7 thoughts on “Is The Chicago Thinker the New “Chicago School” of Journalism, Politics, and Law?

  1. John: Thank you for the entry enrollment data (some argue that official university enrollment may be inflated to some degree, or does not reflect net retention and other factors); the primary point otherwise is directional rather than numeric: that the college is much larger today, but despite this, it is actually more politically concentrated; that is, despite enrollment growth (not only at UChi), the political distribution on college campuses is generally more skewed rather than more scattered, and did not result in deeper political variety–indeed, it appears consolidated and ideologically unified: there is expansion in numbers, but contraction in political diversity or pluralism. Homogeneity or uniformity of students (and academy) tends to support university corporate continuity, and also a social regularity that will not alienate foundation and corporate donors. The Obama “disinfo” project embodies an ideology of conformity and control (exclusion of deviancy) through non-consent private speech regulation, and hence the Chicago Thinker rebuttals are even more poignant in free speech dimensions, and as challenges to “group think” phenomena (Janis,1972).

    As for the so-called Chicago School, I put it in scare quotes precisely because it is a debated concept. Regardless of any possible department formalism, it otherwise tends to merely indicate an open-minded “contrarian” appetite, or a robust interest in fact and data, especially when inconvenient (including in physics). Thomas Sowell at Stanford, a Ph.D under Friedman, has described many times his very different experience at Chicago, versus Harvard, where as he relates, facts don’t matter as much, and economics was not the “contact sport” as he describes it at Chicago. That’s a pretty good way to describe the “School” and a good way to characterize the new students today who will stand up and challenge consensus (in the spirit of Huxley as well).

    As for Veblen, or certain others, his willingness to write a rather unpopular thesis at Yale, and his contrarian book, “Theory of the Leisure Class,” put him also in this dissident and deviant league, regardless of what political pole he operated from, or was alienated by. The Chicago School, such that it is, isn’t just about Friedman (who was more a good salesman), or merely about “conservatives.” I’m not sure he and his colleagues created an “oasis” but perhaps rather a fertile tributary with a generous pool. Regards.

  2. First, the undergraduate population at the U of Chicago was over 3,500 in the mid-1990s, and over 7,500 in 2021, much bigger than you remember. (https://registrar.uchicago.edu/data-reporting/historical-enrollment/)
    Second, the Chicago School of Economics was not an example of dissident individuality but carefully created conformity and hard work by Milton Friedman to build a right-wing oasis of economic thinkers in the 1940s-1990s. And some of the people you mention had nothing to do with the Chicago School–Veblen, for example, was a left-wing economist briefly at the U of Chicago in the 1890s before he was quickly purged by its conservative elements. An alternative newspaper is a wonderful thing, but it’s not the same as an influential department with the resources to transform an entire field.

  3. Boy, the “Chicgo School.” I don’t think there’s much left of it, not that I can tell. I say this ruefully as someone who remembers how it was. Now, Chicago seems to be just another elite university. They are doing very well, much better than they used to, at getting students with the best credentials. But are those students really making a splash? And their endowment is lagging badly. They are quite a ways behind Northwestern. And even well behind Washington University in St. Louis!

  4. George Mason and IHHS and Mercatus have some serious support programs for young academics……..

  5. I finished my Phd in 1977 in th business schoold as an economist. Have taught at Harvard, Stanford, Clarement, Duke, and now Georgia Tech. I was a Head Resident at Upper Flint.

    Today’s environment is so discouraging and difficult for a free market, conservative economis in academic. the leftist bias, even in economics programs, is truly astounding.

    I get some support by attending Hillsdale faculty programs.

    But, would so appreciate some support, maybe support groups and communications from other like me.

    Lately I feel as if Milton Friedman never existed. As far as monetary policy, we are completely lost…..

    1. The mistake the Reagan coalition made 40 years ago was ignoring education – both K-12 and higher ed.

      At this point, I don’t think either is savable and that the only solution will be to redirect the revenue streams into something else.

  6. They are LEFTISTS, not liberals — the academic left is way too closeminded to ever be considered “liberal.”

    Academia today is like the Soviet Union of 40-45 years ago and hopefully these brave young journalists won’t be shipped to the academic gulag. Sadly, I’ve seen it happen elsewhere.

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