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.\
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.