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May 23, 2014

Case for Confucius

Current dialogue around the Confucius Institute shows lack of faith in UChicago education and students.

On September 24th, 2007, then-president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the podium before a packed audience at Columbia University.  His denial of the Holocaust, the presence of gays in Iran, and Iranian hostility toward Israel provided excellent fodder for the president’s opponents.  “Yet,” The New York Times reported the next day, “his appearance also offered evidence of why he is widely admired in the developing world for his defiance toward Western, especially American, power.”

Don’t expect a similar international relations lesson here.  UChicago’s angst over authoritarian regimes has become clear in recent weeks, with faculty and students alike demanding closure of the Confucius Institute (CI), an on-campus programming center sponsored by the Chinese government.  Last Tuesday, second-years Tyler Kissinger and Max Samels spoke for many of those concerned: “We feel that terminating the contract is consistent with the University’s absolute commitment to academic integrity and free and open inquiry.”

Most discussion so far has revolved around the “academic integrity” half of that statement.  The influence of a foreign government over for-credit coursework understandably concerns the faculty, but the way I see it, these concerns suggest a need for negotiation, not outright opposition.  In demanding full-scale closure of the CI, we risk denying ourselves some much-needed “free and open inquiry” with a rising power.

Why should UChicago not cut ties with an authoritarian regime? For starters, our interconnected 21st-century world will inevitably bring our institution into contact with some unsavory characters.  Even without the CI, the University will still need the cooperation and approval of Chinese Communist Party officials to operate its Beijing Center.  Should we pull out of China to protect our academics from oppressive government? Fairness would demand a second look at our programs in other less-than-democratic locales—Istanbul and Jerusalem both come to mind.  Break connections with one, and our ability to study, travel to, and engage with the others will come into question.

In the long run, closing the CI might hamper our ability to engage with China itself.  The Institute’s opponents seem to have forgotten that censorship and selective history can’t be separated from the reality of contemporary China.  Consider one student’s recollection of a CI class at Marymount University: “When Tiananmen Square comes up in class, we all look at each other. The teachers talk about it as this beautiful square, a nice place to visit. But it’s like, ‘Wait, hold on, we’re missing some context.’”

Beyond the CI’s Judd Hall office, UChicago students should find plenty of “context” for these one-sided classroom discussions, thanks to our own East Asian studies department and well-read student body.  Our homegrown study of this rising Asian power doesn’t sidestep Tiananmen, Taiwan, or other thorny topics.  The CI’s classes do—enabling students to pinpoint the gaps and subtleties in the image that China presents to the world.

Why should we understand this image? Think back to that list of University programs in less-than-democratic regimes.  Like it or not, a growing number of nations are adopting China’s repression at home and saber-rattling abroad as an alternative to our Western, liberal democratic model.  Facing this world, politically minded students should heed one nugget of Chinese wisdom: Sun Tzu’s advice to “know thy enemy.”  Ahmadinejad’s 2007 address gave Columbia University’s undergrads a peek into Iran’s bellicose leadership.  Now, the CI’s classes are providing a somewhat less entertaining glimpse into Chinese “soft power.” Our school’s legions of econ, political science, and public policy students will soon have to contend with similar attempts at cultural and political assertion.  Should we deny them this chance at firsthand experience?

The emphatic “yes” from the CI’s opponents hints at another, more troubling undercurrent: a profound lack of confidence in the student body.  This mentality assumes that students will accept and internalize anything presented in class, turning a blind eye to the vocal opinions and fierce debates that rage in Bartlett, the Institute of Politics, and the pages of the Maroon. This is not the UChicago I know.

All this may seem a bit excessive for such a narrow debate, so let me close by putting the CI opposition in a larger context.  Seven years after the president of a “state sponsor of terror” addressed Columbia University, U.S. college students are shying away from any viewpoint at odds with theirs.  They’re already shouting them down at Rutgers University and Smith College, where recent protests prompted Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde, respectively, to cancel commencement speeches.

This heightened sensitivity is costing our generation something of far more value than political sensibilities.  We should all consider sociologist Laurie Essig’s recent yet timeless reminder that “we must listen to someone with whom we vehemently disagree in order to come to some common understanding. ”

Protests over the CI aside, UChicago students seem to have taken the point. With a diverse student body and IOP speaker lineup that features Rand Paul one week and Al Gore the next, we’re poised to continue the “free and open inquiry” that Essig, Kissinger, and Samels all seek to defend.  Let’s not taint that freedom over an awkward Tiananmen discussion.

Patrick Reilly is a first-year in the College majoring in history.

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