ACTA 2017 Merrill Award Acceptance Address

Robert J. Zimmer
Liberal Arts, Free Expression, and the Demosthenes-Feynman Trap
Acceptance Address
American Council of Trustees and Alumni 2017 Merrill Award
October 20, 2017 
Washington, DC

Almost 2400 years ago, the great Athenian orator Demosthenes wrote:  “The wish is parent to the thought, and that is why nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each person wishes, that they also believe to be true.” Demosthenes was not talking about deceiving ourselves on a personal level, but rather in our views of the world at large.

The phenomenon identified by Demosthenes has remained with us over the millennia.   Speaking of science in the broadest possible sense, the great American physicist Richard Feynman said during his Caltech commencement address in 1974:  “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Both Demosthenes and Feynman use the same word – easy – to describe the tendency to self-deceit, and the word “easy” is important to emphasize.  It is not just that fooling oneself is common, it is the easy and in that sense natural state of humankind.  A physicist might describe this as the lowest energy state, which means that energy must be applied to be in a different situation.  Moving beyond it will not happen automatically.  Without effort, often purposeful effort, we are all caught in this Demosthenes-Feynman trap.

Liberal arts education, at its best, provides such an effort.  Learning to recognize and challenge one’s own and others’ assumptions, the confrontation of new and different ideas, understanding the power and limitations of an argument, perceiving the importance of context, history, and culture, understanding the ubiquity of complexity, recognizing when to forgo the temptation of simplicity, grappling with exposure to unfamiliar modes of inquiry, synthesizing different perspectives, and being able to articulately and coherently advocate a position—all these are skills that students should acquire through their education and that faculty need to impart in delivering that education.  Central to this education are free expression, open discourse, rigorous argument, diverse perspectives being brought forth by individuals with different backgrounds and experiences, freedom to express views that may be unpopular or contrary to any consensus, and the multiple intellectual challenges these activities generate.  It is an education designed to teach students to think critically in multiple ways, and designed to impart a set of lifelong habits of mind and intellectual skills.  These are indeed liberal arts, or in other words liberating skills, that enable us, at least to some extent, to free ourselves from the Demosthenes-Feynman trap of self-deception in thought.

One often hears liberal arts education described as being valuable for personal development while being dismissed as impractical.  In fact, this is a traditional view of the liberal arts going back many centuries, and a number of proponents of liberal arts education today are comfortable with this view.  However, while the value for personal development is surely accurate, the assertion of impracticality is not.  The habits of mind and intellectual skills of questioning and challenge that are gained from the demanding form of liberal arts education I have just described are a powerful and even necessary tool in many areas, particularly for leadership in an environment of complexity.  Such leaders are inevitably faced with integrating different perspectives, understanding context and uncertainty, and questioning both power and limitations in a wide variety of arguments, approaches, and options.  Getting out of the Demosthenes-Feynman trap is critical to being effective – leadership governed by self-deceit cannot be so.  In this light, a high quality liberal arts education is in fact an excellent training ground for students who will soon be entering the world of work.

A concrete example is illuminating.  Climate change is a question that is confronted in various ways by leaders around the world in government, business, science, technology, education, and non-profits. In order to understand this issue both seriously and broadly, here are some higher order questions that arise independent of one’s viewpoint on climate change.  What is the nature of scientific evidence and conclusion?  How do you understand uncertainty?  How does one think about risk?    What forms of government are capable of making, executing, and sustaining what types of decisions?  What type of trade-offs are different countries able or willing to make and why?  How does technological change happen?  How do societal culture and history affect market behavior, policy choices and outcomes?  When can nations act collectively and when can they not?  What approach can one take to analyze the impact of law and regulation?

These are the types of questions one learns to confront in a quality liberal arts education.  They are all questions that many people, including some with strong views on climate change, will either never consider or respond to with unexamined and even unrecognized assumptions.  Each question by itself does not give a full perspective on climate change, but each is necessary to gain a sophisticated perspective on climate change.  There are no “final” answers to any of these questions.  Independent of particular conclusions or viewpoints, leaders needing to confront this issue will have limited likelihood of success if they remain in the Demosthenes-Feynman trap.

I have spoken of quality liberal arts education as both personally expanding and empowering in work.  Yet, liberal arts education is under serious threat in the United States today.  As we are all aware, there is a major assault on free expression and open discourse taking place on many campuses across the country.  Many universities and colleges confront demands made by groups of students and some faculty that speakers with certain views (always views they disagree with) be prevented from speaking,  and that universities adopt policies that limit the ideas faculty, students, and visitors should be allowed to present or hear.  Others confront similar demands made by persons outside the university.  As I have indicated, free expression, open discourse, rigorous argumentation, and freedom to express unpopular views lie at the very core of a liberal arts education.  To diminish free expression is quite simply to diminish the quality of education.  It is imperative for those of us responsible for high quality education to reaffirm this value and to resist these efforts to suppress speech.  As we all recognize, the response of faculty and university leaders across the country has been uneven.

I am going to discuss three related but distinct aspects of the current threat to free expression.

First is what one might call the “no discomfort” argument.  One of the persistent rationales for demands emanating from students and sometimes faculty to suppress speech is concern about discomfort.  If students feel uncomfortable, this argument goes, there is something amiss and discourse needs to be controlled to correct it.  Many of the persons who make this argument are of good will and are projecting empathy for those who might feel uncomfortable by the expression of certain views.  Many students come out of a high school environment in which this perspective is forcefully articulated, sometimes as one of the highest values of that educational environment.

One of the benefits of seeing education through the lens of the Demosthenes-Feynman trap is that it highlights how deeply misguided this argument is.   Because education can help liberate us from the Demosthenes-Feynman trap, and because this trap is defined by an easy and comfortable state, it follows that an effective education is in fact intrinsically uncomfortable at times.  Without discomfort and the challenge that stimulates it, there is no escape for thought being submerged by an ongoing state of self-deception.  The argument for avoiding discomfort, therefore, is an argument against liberal arts education itself and against the empowerment that such education brings.  Those who argue for avoiding discomfort, while seemingly seeking to aid students, are in fact doing all students a great disservice – they are advocating for reducing the quality of education, and along with it the capacity of students to apply critical and independent thought to the world.

One of the drivers for the prevalence of the no discomfort argument that we often hear today is exclusionary behavior.  There is no question that there is a powerful history of exclusionary behavior in this society, as in all societies.  Our history is replete with slavery, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and discrimination against religious and ethnic groups.  Universities should all be striving to confront the continuing impact of these forces, and there is no question that creating an inclusive and respectful campus community requires serious and sustained work and attention.  This effort is needed to ensure that all students feel sufficiently empowered to participate in the university’s intellectual discourse.  But part of that empowerment is helping students to accept the discomfort caused by conflicting views, and to see it as an intrinsic part of their own education and advancement.  Automatically viewing discomfort caused by free expression and open discourse as problematic has the ironic result of establishing a new type of exclusionary behavior - excluding students from the best and most challenging education that universities can provide.

Another feature of the “no discomfort” argument is an unfortunate and naïve neglect, and perhaps ignorance, of history.  It is dangerous for a group with one particular perspective to advocate for special exceptions to a commitment to free and open expression.  If universities allow some views to be suppressed, it is certain that other views, not always concordant views, will be suppressed over time.  If those who were certain they were right were empowered to silence those whose views made them “uncomfortable,” we would never have had a civil rights, women’s rights, or gay rights movement on our campuses or in our nation.

A second aspect of the threat to free expression and the liberal arts education it supports is an attack on the very core of the university’s role in society, an attack seeking to turn universities into a political or moral battleground.  While the “no discomfort” argument generally comes from within the university, this second threat, not benign in intent, comes from both within and outside the university.

Universities’ openness to divergent and clashing ideas, to analytic debate, to rigor, and to questioning, is a critical ingredient in illuminating societal, scientific, and humanistic issues.  The greatest contributions universities can make to society over the long run are the ideas and discoveries of faculty and students that emanate from the intellectual ferment of such a challenging environment and the work of alumni across the scope of human endeavor empowered by their education. That universities are virtually unique in making this long-term contribution only highlights their importance to society.

The openness of universities, and therefore their most fundamental value to society, is under threat by those who view the university as a political or moral battleground and seek to impose their own views on others by suppressing speech, sometimes being willing to use disruption and even violence to do so. We have seen many such examples in recent years.  Such groups, independent of their particular views, claim moral superiority and act with an urgency driven by self-righteousness.  The suppression of speech and open discourse by disruption or violence has been present with us through the millennia, and such conduct today only adds to this problematic history.  One wonders when the logic of preventing someone from speaking and others from listening translates into preventing the library from having certain books.  It is not that great a leap. We need to recognize very clearly, whether these groups come from within or outside the university and without regard to their political or moral view, that they stand fundamentally opposed to the foundations of what a university is, the nature of its societal contributions, and what an education should be.

A third aspect of the threat to free expression and liberal arts education is the role of university and college faculty and leaders.  Each institution needs to decide what it is and what it stands for.  Faculty, deans, provosts, and presidents, as well as trustees, individually and together, have a fundamental role in defining institutional values and how they are realized. Institutions may not all come to the same conclusion.  But clarity about what an institution’s values are and the expression of these values is important to each.

Many faculty and institutional leaders see themselves in a complex position with respect to free expression.  They deal with complicated constituencies, multiple pressures and responsibilities, and competition for their time and attention.  Many are now working on campuses in which free expression, even as an ideal, has been eroded.  Some faculty and university leaders have strong political views themselves.  The “no discomfort” argument, misguided as it is, can be seen by some as having a moral high ground based on the perception of empathy.  Particularly in situations in which free expression is already eroded, a path to reversing the trend may not be straightforward.

We see here another potential Demosthenes-Feynman trap.  Namely, will some university faculty and leaders think the erosion of free expression and the concomitant diminution of the quality of liberal arts education are acceptable?  Will they deceive themselves in thinking this erosion is not profoundly damaging either because they are sympathetic to a particular set of political views or because such an approach makes life easier for them in the short run?  Are some university faculty and leaders caught in their own version of the Demosthenes-Feynman trap around this critical issue?

The saddest and most troubling development would be that faculty members and academic leaders, all of whom have the obligation to deliver outstanding education, become comfortable with the erosion of free expression, and relegate it to just one of the many things they deal with rather than supporting it as fundamental to education.  To do so would be to fall into the very Demosthenes-Feynman trap that liberal arts education is designed to confront.  This third aspect of the threat to free expression, namely that faculty and academic leaders may not escape the Demosthenes-Feynman trap of comfort with the erosion of free expression and of liberal arts education, may be the greatest long-term threat of all.

Let me conclude on a positive note.  Just fifteen months ago, it was almost unheard of for open discussion of these issues to be taking place on most university and college campuses.  The visible silence on the issue was itself a reflection of the erosion of free expression and open discourse.  Within the past year, a number of university leaders and faculty have argued forcefully for the importance of free expression, and I for one am deeply appreciative of their actions.  I am pleased that the Chicago Principles, reflecting the long-standing commitment of the University of Chicago, its faculty, and its leaders to free expression, have been a useful stimulus and tool in the emerging national discussion and have provided a model for a number of university faculty and leaders around the country to take a strong stand in support of free expression.

As educators, we have a collective obligation to give all our students the most enriching and empowering education we can.  To this end, supporting open discourse and free expression is not a task we can take lightly.  We cannot view its erosion with comfort or complacency, and we should not deceive ourselves in thinking this erosion is not profoundly damaging.  For the sake of today’s students and those who will follow them, we must reaffirm our commitment to the spirit of the liberating skills, to the liberal arts, and to the free and open discourse and questioning that lie at their core.