Steve Zolno ’71, President of the Alumni Association, on the purpose of higher education and dialogue.
William O. Douglas served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1939-1975. He was a friend of Robert M. Hutchins from 1927, when, as President of Yale Law School, he hired Douglas away from Columbia. Much later, in 1959, they worked together at the Center for the Study of Democratic Intuitions.
In his autobiography, Douglas quotes this 1952 testimony from Hutchins, given in the McCarthy era, to the House Select Committee to Investigate Tax-exempt Foundations. At that time Hutchins was president of the Ford Foundation.
In my view, this statement summarizes what Shimer was then and still continues to be (except for the “men” part):
Now, a university is a place that is established and will function for the benefit of society, provided it is a center of independent thought. It is a center of independent thought and criticism that is created in the interest of the progress of society, and the one reason that we know that is that every totalitarian government must fail is that no totalitarian government is prepared to face the consequences of creating free universities.
It is important for this purpose to attract into the institution men of the greatest capacity, and to encourage them to exercise their independent judgment.
Education is a kind of continuing dialogue, and a dialogue assumes…different points of view.
The civilization that I work toward…could be called a civilization of the dialogue, where, instead of shooting one another when you differ, you reason things out together.
In this dialogue, then, you cannot assume that you are going to have everyone thinking the same way or feeling the same way. It would be unprogressive if that happened. The hope of eventual development would be gone. More than that, of course it would be very boring.
A university then, is a kind of continuing Socratic conversation on the highest level for the very best people you can think of, you can bring them together about the most important questions, and the thing that you must do, to the uttermost possible limits, is to guarantee those men the freedom to think and to express themselves.
Please do everything you can to support Shimer to ensure that these ideals continue to be available to young people who believe in the “civilization of the dialogue.”