In defense of intellectual toughness

By Nick Lilovich, Class of 2017

By Nick Lilovich, Class of 2017

The University of Chicago letter to incoming freshmen (henceforth, “the letter”) attempted to send a message to our new class of 2020, and think pieces soon followed. Several faculty members thought the letter so presumptuous they felt compelled to respond en masse. What’s even more, the letter may have made some students feel threatened or unwelcome. That’s unfortunate, especially for a topic as challenging as this one. That said, the message that the administration wanted to convey about “safe spaces” is one that many criticisms of the letter do not fully discuss. I’m writing to summarize and defend this particular message, not the straw men so frequently put up in challenge.

First of all, note that the letter does not criticize literal safe spaces. As the faculty response rightly pointed out, we have many such mentoring, comforting, and spiritual spaces in our community (1)(2). The letter also does not override nor discount the importance of the university’s harassment, discrimination, and sexual misconduct policies, or others that protect students from harm (3).

Instead, the letter intended to promote open dialog and rigorous debate, and argued that identity politics and a victimhood culture are serious distractions from collaboration and problem-solving. The safe spaces that the letter targeted often manifest themselves as a “right” to not hear conflicting opinions, and this right is duly not recognized at the University of Chicago.

In fact, a phenomenon of uninvited speakers (4)(5), exiled students (6), and deadened debates (7) plague peer institutions today. Even friendly discussions over “futbol” are devolving into heated disputes over who “owns” the right to use that word (8). These behaviors, intended to “protect marginalized communities, can also ostracize those who disagree with them.” (9)  Perhaps worst of all, a growing body of research suggests that trigger warnings and safe spaces may be actively counterproductive for those who have experienced trauma (10).

In contrast, Chicago Booth’s own Adam Smith Society hosted a libertarian speaker last year. His views were quite extreme, and at one point, he was asked whether he opposed child labor laws. Amazingly, he did, arguing that these laws violated free market principles. I maintain that he was incredibly wrong, but the audience members and I learned quite a bit from his arguments, if only how to better defend our own.

In any event, this debate is not just about speakers banned from campus or students ejected from class. The risk to new knowledge is even greater.

The Harper Library at the University of Chicago

The Harper Library at the University of Chicago

In the late 1960s, University of Chicago’s Gary Becker shocked many contemporaries when he compared children to durable goods, “acquired and enjoyed over many years.” Controversial, yes, but also judicious. It led to many demographic policy insights, including the now widely accepted view that women’s education was the best way to reduce family size and prevent overpopulation (due to the increased “price” of a mother’s time).

Imagine him arguing for a similarly-radical idea today. Would the faculty deign to listen beyond the thesis statement? Would his students thoughtfully consider the implications? Frankly, I think the social justice howls might blow him right out of the classroom. How many important ideas and defensible conclusions have we curtailed because they bother us? We can only guess. Still, the safe-space dynamic as defined above has the dangerous potential to restrict inquiry, burden insight, and prevent impact.

A friend recently remarked that a “dynamic of openness and deference to lived experience is a good thing. We need a more considerate society.” On the whole, I think she’s right. Those conversations are essential. However, I do not think this airtime should come at the expense of challenging, uncomfortable, or even occasionally offensive dialogue. I hope you all agree.


Nick is a second year MBA student, always open for challenge and debate.

(1) http://spirit.uchicago.edu/spaces

(2) The University could go even further without challenging discourse – research strongly suggests that racially or sexually segregated housing generally improves economic outcomes. See: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/10/28/survey-finds-big-differences-between-black-hbcu-graduates-those-who-attended-other and http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/rest.88.2.300#.V_Jz-CSiv3F

(3) https://studentmanual.uchicago.edu/university. See especially “Civil Behavior In a University Setting” and the “Policy on Harassment, Discrimination, and Sexual Misconduct”  

(4) https://www.thefire.org/list-of-campus-disinvitations-2000-2014/

(5) https://www.thefire.org/williams-college-bars-uncomfortable-learning-speaker-from-campus-declares-hate-speech-too-uncomfortable/

(6) http://www.nationalreview.com/article/415653/student-i-was-banned-class-pointing-out-false-rape-statistic-was-false-katherine

(7) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/04/28/council-on-american-islamic-relations-says-anti-muslim-college-speakers-create-a-hostile-learning-environment-for-muslim-and-arab-american-students/?utm_term=.e268d0f11f42

(8) http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/the-rise-of-victimhood-culture/404794/. See esp. the referenced paper discussing Victimhood Culture by comparison to Honor Cultures and Dignity Cultures of the past, http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/15691330-12341332

(9) http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/silencing-religious-students-on-campus/497951/

(10) A stupendous summary of this research is given here: https://psmag.com/hazards-ahead-the-problem-with-trigger-warnings-according-to-the-research-4f220f7e6c7e#.i49bl34qu