May 18, 2012

An imperative outside ourselves

An elite education is more than a means to an end—it imparts a moral obligation.

The fourth paragraph of the Kalven Report reads, “A good university...will be upsetting.” How true that is. Have you read this newspaper in the last couple of weeks? By way of summary, I present these buzzwords: Kalven Report, Senior Gift Committee, Students for a Socially Responsible Investment Committee, divestment, neutrality, and on and on the list goes. I promise I’m as weary of the back and forth on these specific issues as you are, and so I’m trying to move to more general points as quickly as possible. I believe some things need to be said about the underlying premise of what it is we do here, and I’d like to challenge our understanding of the relationship between elite education and morality.

A couple weeks back, one finely written and well-argued opinion submission to the Maroon, in which the writer favored the University’s “neutrality” in investment decisions, voiced a concern that troubles me deeply. The writer argued that, were the University to release itself from adherence to that neutrality, the discussions over where to invest the U of C’s money could become “ferocious.” His word.

What’s wrong with that? (You may envision another five or six question marks for emphasis.) God forbid our faculty and administrators have to apply themselves to heated, contentious discussions on the merits of expecting a return on an investment in Darfur or West Virginian strip mining. I imagine a scene in which a historian , a mathematician, a biologist, and a philosopher debate not only the University’s moral compass, but also whether to send money in the direction it points. The idea pleases me not because I like dramatics, but because it strikes me as a process worthy of the world’s sharpest minds. Isn’t that, in some way, why we all came here—to be challenged, to have the sort of discussions that are hard, in which maybe there is no right answer, but at least a better one? And yet, when it comes to the University’s money, all of that is tossed aside. Why? Because if Robert Zimmer takes a stand on one side of the issue or another, Botany Pond will turn to blood and a host of locusts will overtake the Reg.

And this, I submit, is what is so goddamn reprehensible about this whole thing. It stamps a University seal of approval on ignoring the outside world, on looking to it and then deciding to take no action. In turn, we constituents of the University aren’t challenged by the University’s actions, and we don’t have to search ourselves for what we believe is right or wrong. We condone the University’s moral laziness and so cement our own.

Understand that I have no illusions about changing the University’s moral outlook or engagement. If the University of Chicago guiding the world by moral example sounds like a bad joke, that’s because it is. To the casual observer, the University’s most important gifts to the world have been the economics of Milton Friedman and the atomic bomb. I say we can be even greater products of this place. We should be. We are not the University. We are better than it.

To some of you, this will all sound so blatantly obvious as to not merit printing. Thank you, truly, for understanding what is paramount about our education, and apologies for the redundancy. To others, this may seem laughably naïve or un-nuanced, and it is that crowd for which I’m writing. You are my friends and classmates, and what I am trying to convince you of is that the world needs you to care and care deeply. There is no nuance about this.

There is something to be said for neutrality when it’s appropriate (ask the Swiss, maybe). But just as we came here to prepare for achievement in the humanities or sciences, we came here so we might learn to be the best thinkers of our generation. So know this: There is no more important function of an elite education than to train us to decide between right and wrong.

The world recognizes a talent as great when the skill it represents is applied with excellence. If you want to take your particular combination of intelligence and education and use it to be a wealthy banker or renowned lawyer, fine. But what is morally criminal is deciding that your professional excellence excuses you from engaging with the world outside your own, that your own solipsistic reflections and self-interests are most important, and that it is up to someone else to be involved with society at large.

We self-aggrandize as the hardest working and sharpest thinking young adults in the world. So, I’m asking you to put your mind where your mouth is, and direct your attentions outside yourself. If we are so smart, if our education has the worth we say it does, we must rise to the near-impossible challenges of repairing this world and leading through public engagement. This is the moral imperative of an elite education. Live accordingly.

Adam Gillette is a fourth-year in the College majoring in history.