Selections from an address by Robert Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago
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 Caltec 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. … 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. …Automatically viewing discomfort caused by free expression and open discourse as problematic has the ironic result of …—excluding students from the best and most challenging education that universities can provide
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. …
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 … Such groups… claim moral superiority and act with an urgency driven by self-righteousness. …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. …
… 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.
…. 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.