Ben Schwarz on the University of Chicago’s new grad-school admissions policy

I’ve written several posts about the dissolution of The University of Chicago’s commitment to free expression, embodied in the Kalven Report‘s mandate that—except in exceptional circumstances involving University operation—our school should take no official stand on any issues of morality, ideology, or politics (see, for instance, here, here, and here). And up to now it hasn’t, even during calls for the school to take stands against Communism, against the Vietnam War, and for civil rights in the Sixties. But now it has begun violating these principles, as department after department makes clear political and ideological statements.

I’ve also called attention the English Department’s violations of Kalven Principles in its own official statements, as well as its new policy of ensuring that all graduate students accepted in the next year will be in Black studies only. While the English Department’s new statement is guaranteed to chill free speech in that department, I couldn’t object to their curricular decision to accept students in only one small area of English, for that’s a departmental matter that seems to have no bearing on an official commitment to a political or ideological position. After all, shouldn’t the Department, or any department, be able to construct its own curriculum?

Ben Schwarz disagrees.

Schwarz, former national and literary editor of The Atlantic, has taken to the pages of Spiked to protest not only the repeated violations of University principles by its own official departments and units, but the decision that all incoming grad students (for a year at least) will be in Black studies only. He sees that decision as part and parcel of an ideological commitment that not only violates Kalven, but dictates the direction of study, itself guaranteed to chill speech.

Click on the screenshot to read the piece.

I won’t repeat Schwarz’s argument of how our University is quickly dismantling the principles that made us unique among American colleges, as I’ve said similar things before. Rather, I’ll just show you his argument about why deciding to take only Black studies graduate students is a de facto violation of University policies. I’ve added one link. And the emphasis is mine.

. . . While the Kalven report asserts that only the individual within the university is the proper ‘instrument of dissent’, the English department demands that ‘all faculty’ participate in ‘undoing anti-Blackness’ – a mandate for collective responsibility and for collective political action. While the Kalven report argues for the importance of institutional neutrality and for ‘maintain[ing] an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures’, the English department has defined its identity and purpose according to those fashions, passions, and pressures.

Because it is so fundamentally irreconcilable to the Kalven report, the English department’s manifesto is illegitimate. Moreover, that manifesto demonstrates that the department’s academic programme – its curricular and investigative priorities and its concomitant priorities in student and faculty recruitment – is plainly defined by, and emerges directly from, the department’s political commitment, its views on social justice, and its advocacy of anti-‘anti-Black’ activism. By the university’s own lights, the department should not be adopting a political stance or committing itself and its members to a programme of advocacy and activism in the first place; therefore, the academic priorities and programme that flow from and express that political commitment are, themselves, irreconcilable with the Kalven report’s insistence on official neutrality, and are also illegitimate.

Although a university spokesman, perhaps wishing to defuse the current imbroglio, stated that ‘as with other departments in the university, the [English] department’s faculty will decide which areas of scholarship they wish to focus on for PhD admissions’, that explanation is at best obtuse and at worst disingenuous. Certainly a history department, say, could legitimately define its academic priorities by privileging Marxian analysis. But if that department declared that, in pursuit of its conception of social justice, it was committing all its faculty to the workers’ struggle and to the concomitant project of squashing the workers’ class enemies, and was therefore prioritising scholarship informed by dialectical materialism in its curricular and recruitment decisions, then, plainly, the department’s academic programme would merely be a creature of its political advocacy.

I think Schwarz has a point here, and his analogy with Marxist studies is a good one. (There’s little doubt that “Black studies” in our English Department will align with Critical Race Theory. It’s by no means an area of open and free-wheeling discussion.)

Although I won’t go as far as Schwarz does in calling this a blatant violation of the principles of our University, it comes close to that line. The English Department really needs to examine whether it is creating an intellectual climate that impedes free discussion (of course they are!), while our Administration needs to decide whether the Department Manifesto itself is a violation of the intellectual neutrality that our university not only prides itself on, but also uses heavily to sell itself to potential students and their parents as a unique attraction of the University of Chicago.

4 Comments

  1. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 18, 2020 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if the English department has ever heard that song about biting the hand that feeds you.

  2. eric
    Posted September 18, 2020 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    The English Department really needs to examine whether it is creating an intellectual climate that impedes free discussion (of course they are!)

    I think they also need to seriously consider whether it’s in the best educational interests of their students. As I said in the other thread, I believe that grad students and professors benefit from talking to students who are studying a different sub-field. It broadens the perspective and may help you bring different tools to bear on a difficult problem. Black Studies students and research products are likely made better by having non-Black Studies peers to trade ideas with, and non-Black Studies research products to read and think about.

    Something of an aside, but even the woke crowd used to get this. Their whole notion of ‘intersectionality’ – while somewhat pomo for my tastes – is based on the idea that no single dimension of personality captures a person’s lived experience. So you’d think that even the most ardent, woke, Black Studies supporter would see the need for compatriot Ph.D students in Gender and Sexuality Studies or Global Literature studies. Those are your co-workers, co-researchers, who will help you understand what gender and different national/regional studies have to say about different black experiences.

  3. BJ
    Posted September 18, 2020 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    “The English Department really needs to examine whether it is creating an intellectual climate that impedes free discussion…”

    Somehow, I have a feeling that they’ve come to the conclusion that it will (what thinking person could conclude otherwise?) and are perfectly fine with it. And while it might or might not have been an explicit goal of their actions, it certainly seems like an implicit one!

  4. Jon Gallant
    Posted September 18, 2020 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Narrowing the sub-discipline for new grad students for one year is a mere baby step in the required direction. If the university (and its component departments) is to be a 100% anti-racist institution, then curricular changes will surely be in order.

    The bulk of pre-20th century literature in English (or French, German, Russian, Greek, Latin, etc.) is suffused with “whiteness”, which must therefore be either cancelled or rewritten as part of the struggle against “anti-Blackness”. Some might argue, on the contrary, that the literatures of every culture are a common inheritance of the human species. But, it will be explained to us, that notion reflects the “color-blind” heresy which is itself racist or microaggressive or neo-liberal or something, and it is strictly forbidden by current woke doctrine.


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