“We are here to shape you, not serve you”: a new video on free speech at the University of Chicago

June 1, 2018 • 10:00 am

“Education is not meant to make people comfortable. It is meant to make them think.”

—Hannah Gray, President, University of Chicago, 1978-1993

This 11-minute video, which lauds the University of Chicago as a bellwether for free speech on American campuses, was put out by “We the Internet TV”, which I suspect is a somewhat conservative organization (I’m just guessing based on the tone and the call for “ideological diversity,” which you don’t hear from the Left). But this video is mercifully free from right-wing politicking.  There are conservatives interviewed, but also some liberals, including Geoff Stone (the law professor who helped develop our free speech code, the “Statement on Principles of Free Expression“), and Professor Ceiling Cat, who has a voice-over about 4 minutes in. On the whole, I think it’s not bad, though the narration is a bit, well, eager.

One bit that interested me was the role of the famous Robert Maynard Hutchins, who became president of the University of Chicago at age 30, serving in that role from 1929-1945, and then as Provost (the chief academic officer) from 1945-1951. He not only abolished varsity football, but shaped the undergraduate college and its famous “great books” curriculum. Hutchins was also a fierce advocate of free speech; as you’ll learn from the video (and this was new to me), during the McCarthy era he explicitly invited the head of the Communist Party of America to speak here, and then refused to bow to the State of Illinois’s demand that the Communist be disinvited.

The video gives you a taste of what it’s like to be here, and shows several deplatforming attempts. It ends with some worry about whether the University’s principle of butressing free speech will succeed in view of the faculty and students’ call for Steve Bannon’s upcoming talk to be canceled. I can pretty much assure you that it won’t be, and that the University will deal with any attempts to disrupt it.

Part of the videomakers’ notes:

Why is the University of Chicago the place that’s leading this fight? And can it resist the mounting pressure to abandon its commitment to free speech? We the Internet TV’s Rob Montz went to the Chi-town campus to find out.

A related video was made for a Chicago Tribune editorial on the U of C as “the University of Common Sense”; this one shows some pushback by students, and more discussion by Geoff Stone.

40 thoughts on ““We are here to shape you, not serve you”: a new video on free speech at the University of Chicago

      1. First, they put a nuclear lab under the stands, didn’t they, where the Italian navigator landed in the new world?

        1. Yes, the first sustained nuclear reaction was done under Stagg Field. Balbo, though, landed on the lake, though (flying boats).

    1. I’ve always wondered about the obsession with sports in general and football in particular at US universities. I’ve never understood it. I didn’t know U of C did this, and I think it’s great.

      Studies show that peaceful protest is successful far more often in achieving change than any other kind (including military coups), whatever the situation. Learning to do it well is something students would do well to learn.

      1. I’m not especially fond of the huge amounts of money spent on collegiate sports, but will point out that there are nearly 200,000 people attending college on athletic scholarships. Some, undoubtedly, don’t deserve them (from a “can’t pay of tuition kind of way”) but I personally know many people who could not have attended otherwise.

        1. There are a lot of NZers on sports scholarships at US universities. It sets them up for life.

          I do wonder if there are students who are not athletically inclined who miss out because less academically able sportspeople get their spot. It’s good that someone can get to go because of sports that might have missed out otherwise, but that goes both ways.

          1. It doesn’t work that way here. Per NCAA rules, full athletic scholarships are set-asides; their slots in a class is not open to others, for the very reason you state.

            Of course, most athletic scholarships are not complete rides – they cover only a portion of costs (often quite small), so most athletes are not taking the spot of those who are not athletic- they got into the school on their own merits, but often the scholarships can determine WHICH ones they can afford to attend. My neighbor’s son is on a hockey scholarship, but it’s not big – an amount that last year was enough to cover the cost of his text books (he’s an engineering student so that is significant – %1600 for one year!!).

            Despite the ridiculous amount of money spent on some Collegiate sports programs, I have little patience for those who deride college sports. It’s personal. Two of my best high school friends got to go to school because they were athletes. Phil, who had a 90 mph fast ball (in HS!, pro scouts came to his games, but sadly he had no control) attended Boston U. Chuck, who’s father was an abusive unemployed drunk and his two older brothers were always in trouble with the law, decided he wanted none of that and became an extraordinary hurdler and went to Fordham on a track scholarship. Today my old next door neighbor, who is a single mother and a grammar school teacher’s aide, has one daughter finishing up at Cornell and another who graduated from Harvard, both attending on rowing scholarships.

            1. If they’re set aside, that’s fine – it’s the only problem I ever had with them (aside from the huge focus on football), and it appears it was nothing to worry about. I can see how it helps many kids – I’ve heard other stories too.

              We don’t have enough scholarships of any type. Almost anyone can get a student loan though as long as they’re a NZ citizen or permanent resident. (I think the only thing that means you can’t is being bankrupt in the last year, and you can get dispensation from that too, depending on why you went bankrupt. e.g. illness) Still, the requirements for paying back a loan stop some people.

            2. “Despite the ridiculous amount of money spent on some Collegiate sports programs, I have little patience for those who deride college sports.”

              Just congenially curious – are you nominally more patient with those who decline to declare their point of view about college sports, or who state that they are neutral or indifferent about about college sports?

    2. Yeah! Way to go!

      How does professionally playing sport qualify as ‘education’ or ‘increasing the extent of human knowledge’ (or any other definition of a university).


  1. Not sure I like the “shape you” part. Isn’t that what the ideologues on other campuses are trying to do? I’d prefer “We are here to challenge you.”

    1. By “shape”, I’m sure she means “challenge you, make you think, and expose you to a diversity of ideas”, not “inculcate you with a particular ideology.” That’s not the way this place works, although, of course, some professors and departments do have an ideological agenda.

        1. I had a bit of a reaction to that word too, even though I knew it wasn’t meant in a bad way.

          I tried to think of other words, but each one I came up with could be interpreted in a bad way if you tried hard enough. So I decided to let reputation speak for itself like you.

          1. I had that same reaction.

            I was fine with the ‘not serve you’ part of it. (‘Serve’ interpreted as ‘pander to your wishes’, of course. ‘Serve’ in the sense of ‘provide an education’ is essential. When I was a student we used to get quite cross with lecturers we thought were wasting our time.)


            1. By that do you mean that they were holding forth on topics not related to the subject matter of the course, or that they were lecturing on subject matter (all?) students already quite well knew?

  2. One of the reasons I applied to Chicago was its lack of a football team, indicating to me a most attractive anti team sports spirit. I had hated team sports at school and been quite sulky about them. Field hockey, basket ball required, ugh, – tennis, skating were OK, sort of. There were other more important reasons to be grateful for my U of C education but just imagine the appeal of RMH words!!

    1. As it probably goes without saying, numerous universities tout their football gladiators’ success on the gridiron as a “carrot” to prompt them to apply for admission. (As if the football team’s success possibly makes a crucial difference in the academic success of the student. Hmm . . . perhaps it does with a few students, whose sense of self-worth may be inescapably intertwined with the fortunes of the team.)

  3. A pretty good piece. I think it makes a good point at the beginning, which is that ultimately this is about shutting down (or allowing) the speech of political opponents. If you don’t allow your political opponents to speak, you aren’t a democracy.

    1. You don’t have to give bigots a megaphone – you aren’t denying them speech, you are denying them an audience they couldn’t get otherwise

      Your right to swing a fist ends at my nose….

        1. The person who decides is the one with the megaphone – the tv producer, the college prof organising invites….

      1. Everyone is a bigot to someone else, and the fist analogy fails because speech is not violence. Besides no one is forcing people to listen to anyone. Protestors who try to de-platform speakers are trying to prevent other people from hearing the speaker.

        1. Opinions are relative, but Jerry’s example of 6 million disappeared holocaust jews (and more groups) are facts.

          The pomo “bigot” idea is a dud, and Europe successfully (or not) define hate speech objectively or at least with jurisprudence.

      2. No, they don’t hafta, and I’d never begrudge anyone the right to protest if they do. But if they do, no one’s got the right to disrupt it or shut it down.

        Your right to wield a protest ends at my ear …

  4. Hear hear!

    I’d be so proud to boast about my school’s Ultimate Frisbee talent, and whatever that other one was.

  5. He not only abolished varsity football

    I think that’s still a hanging offense here in Texas.

  6. Lots of opinions. But one potentially valuable point: I learned that Sean Spicer can be lured to make a claim (public speakers should not lie) which he could not uphold after three weeks (lied on the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd).

    Of course, everyone claims falsehoods eventually. But Trump makes them 5 times more frequent than normal IIRC the amassed media track record.

    So was it effective? We already knew Spicer et al lies more than most … but maybe a clear example helps someone when statistical facts is not sufficient.

    1. I always felt like Spicer hated lying and that’s why he wasn’t a good spokesperson for Trump. Trump was determined to break him to the bit, and he never quite succeeded. Sarah Sanders, otoh, took to the bit easily. She doesn’t seem to recognize her role is a conduit between the president and the people. She happily plays to an audience of one.

      1. I wonder if she ever asks her (former) Southern Baptist preacher father for advice regarding job-related ethical dilemmas.

        1. He’s got a habit of Lying For Jesus himself. In his mind it’s probably not much of a step to be Lying For Trump.

  7. My undergrad degree was a spinoff of RMH and Mortimer Adler’s curriculum….I graduated from St Mary’s in Moraga in what was called, when I enrolled, Integrated Liberal Arts, but integrated had become a loaded term by 1970, so they changed it to Integral. It was developed from the St. John’s Annapolis and Santa Fe programs, and used four years of original materials, instead of text books. Two years of Greek, two years of theology, music, four of maths, and the Great Books (as they were 50 years ago).

  8. This is a powerhouse of a video, one of the best I have watched on the philosophy of free speech, argument, logic and the need to preserve it in the academic context. And you, Sir, deserve double dose of kudos for appearing in it as well as sharing it!

  9. “On the whole, I think it’s not bad, though the narration is a bit, well, eager.”

    I see/hear what you mean.

    Were Robert Maynard Hutchins recording a video today, I wonder if he would employ (could tolerate) all the audio-visual razzmatazz.

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