May 14, 2013

Let’s define our terms

A prospie recently tossed me that ever-familiar query into the foundation of my being as a UChicago student: Why UChicago?

I was tired at the time, and my mind was on other things; I admit that I completely fumbled my answer. So, dear prospie, in case you happen to be reading this, allow me a moment to set the record straight: Most of what I told you was, at best, icing on the cake. Yes, Hyde Park and the larger city offer rich and often provocative cultural backdrops; yes, the academics here are demanding beyond compare and prepare you for just about any conceivable life path; and yes, you’ll find a remarkably diverse range of sports, clubs, events, lectures, and volunteer opportunities waiting for you whenever you finish studying.

But no, unless you’re one of those admissions office gnomes who will happily spew such facts on auto-repeat, none of this justifies picking UChicago over its similarly illustrious peers. You choose UChicago because of its foundational dedication to free, creative, and rigorous inquiry. I did, at least, and I couldn’t be more pleased with my choice.

As much as I regret having actually given the stale Wonder Bread answer to the prospie, I’m not sure I could have lived with the alternative, either. Any prospie worthy of acceptance here would have surely pressed the matter further: So what exactly is this “unfettered inquiry” everyone talks about? And to this question, ladies and germs, I humbly concede that I have no real answer.

I might be able to tell you what it isn’t; for one, we’re certainly not a bunch of headstrong skeptics. The dictum “challenge everything, accept nothing” is a death sentence to real inquiry—eventually, we have to posit axioms or make simplifying assumptions to get anywhere interesting. On the other hand, “free inquiry” definitely does not imply uncritical internalization of anything that could conceivably pass for knowledge; we still question our sources of information.

But this gets us no closer to a definite grasp of our deeply venerated “free inquiry.” Speaking from just above the balcony on the western wall of the Harper Reading Room, Francis Bacon exhorts, “Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted…but to weigh and consider.” I’m completely at a loss to tell you whether this weighing and considering lies somewhere between skepticism and uncritical acceptance; and if it does, I know not where, nor whether it engages an entirely different faculty altogether.

Perhaps I’m just not a member of the charmed circle of intellectuals for whom “free inquiry” is a patently unproblematic concept. If so, it doesn’t seem like I’m the only one around here that isn’t. The idea of respecting unfettered inquiry forms the kernel of many university policies—toward investment, for example—while powerfully inflecting our reaction to certain politically incorrect Facebook posts. Much debate on these policies reduces to a tension between different conceptions of what a climate of genuinely free inquiry looks like in practice.

Basing University policy on a concept that is either outright empty or (let’s be optimistic) subject to wildly differing interpretations strikes me as irresponsible. Until we arrive, as a community, at a clear understanding of both “free inquiry” and its limits, the phrase does not belong in official policy verbiage.

Had the prospie been particularly persistent in her demands, I would have glibly responded that the very nature of our inquiry here is itself a topic of inquiry. It’s the sort of vexingly nonsensical answer I would have really appreciated as a prospie. But it doesn’t make any substantive headway on resolving the spate of issues that have and will continue to bother us until we can find a way to affirm our devotion to creative, rigorous inquiry by placing it on more solid ground.

Tyler Lutz is a fourth-year in the College majoring in physics and English.