On Friday, I was the invited speaker for the Class Day Ceremony at the University of Chicago, my alma mater. Campus political groups issued a statement of protest and a few students walked out of the ceremony. Here's the speech I gave.
This is a speech about speaking your mind when other people don't want you to.
To those of you who are protesting or planning a walkout, I thank you for not seriously disrupting my speech. And though I'm sorry you won't hear me out, I completely respect your right to protest any speaker you dislike, including me, so long as you honor the Chicago Principles. It is one of the core liberties that all of us have a responsibility to uphold, protect and honor.
To those of you who choose to stay, I thank you for honoring another Chicago principle, one that was dear to my dear friend, Bob Zimmer: Namely, that a serious education is impossible except in an environment of unfettered intellectual challenge — an environment that, in turn, isn't possible without the opportunity to encounter people and entertain views with whom and with which you might profoundly disagree.
To John Boyer, who welcomed me to Chicago in 1991 when I was a nervous 17-year-old freshman, I want to salute you for everything you've done to make the college so much better, while preserving what always made it great: the conviction that to think clearly, we must be able to speak freely; that to disagree intelligently, we must first understand the views of our opponents profoundly; that to change people's minds, we must be open to the possibility that our minds might be changed. All of this asks us to listen charitably, argue candidly, consider deeply, examine and reexamine everything, above all our own deeply held convictions — and, unlike at so many other universities, to respond to ideas we reject with more and better speech, not heckling or censorship.
And to the class of 2023: You and your families should all be exceptionally proud of the diplomas you will soon hold in your hands. I know how hard you've worked to get them. And I know that the education you got here is qualitatively different from the education you would have received nearly anywhere else — not just better, but also dedicated to something higher and more important than the mere acquisition of complex knowledge and specialized skills.
What I am referring to is the capacity, the desire and above all, the courage to think for yourselves — and to express and behave yourselves accordingly. This is more than just the purpose of an education. It is what the world you are entering most desperately needs from you. And it is what, I trust and hope, you are uniquely equipped to offer.
Decades ago, the art critic Harold Rosenberg coined the phrase "the herd of independent minds." It's a line I think about often.
The herd of independent minds are the people who say they make up their own minds when it comes to politics, and yet somehow, and generally without exception, arrive at precisely the same long list of political conclusions as millions of others. The herd of independent minds were the Republicans who were ardent NeverTrumpers in 2015, fervent Trumpers from 2017-21, NeverTrumpers again after Jan. 6, and are now tilting back toward Trump: In other words, Lindsey Graham. The herd of independent minds are those who think "La La Land" is a great movie but "Miss Congeniality" isn't.
The point is: There are very few people who don't see themselves as independent thinkers. There are even fewer people who are.
This is true wherever you go, in most walks of life. But it seems to be especially true in places and institutions heavily populated by people with elite educations: The kinds of places and institutions that many of you will soon be a part of. Groupthink is the affliction of those who ought to be — and often think of themselves as — the least vulnerable to it.
Consider some examples:
Why did nobody at Facebook — sorry, Meta — stop Mark Zuckerberg from going all in on the Metaverse, possibly the worst business idea since New Coke? Why were the economists and governors at the Federal Reserve so confident that interest rates could remain at rock bottom for years without running a serious risk of inflation? Why did the CIA believe that the government of Afghanistan could hold out against the Taliban for months but that the government of Ukraine would fold to the Russian army in days? Why were so few people on Wall Street betting against the housing market in 2007? Why were so many officials and highly qualified analysts so adamant that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? Why were so many people convinced that overpopulation was going to lead to catastrophic food shortages, and that the only sensible answers were a one-child policy and forced sterilizations?
Oh, and why did so many major polling firms fail to predict Donald Trump's victory in 2016?
The cases are almost endless, the consequences frequently disastrous. And it raises the question: Why is it that, when you bring together a lot of smart people in a room, their collective intelligence tends to go down, not up? Why do they always seem to press the mute button on their critical faculties when confronted with propositions that, as an old colleague of mine liked to say, ought to vanish in the presence of thought?
I'm not sure if there's one right answer, but here are a few thoughts based on my own observations and experiences:
First, the problem isn't that people aren't smart. It's that they are scared.
To yell stop when everyone else says go — or go when everyone else says stop — takes guts, and guts aren't part of any kind of normal college curriculum. In my generation, the hardest people to say "no" to were the people who had professional power over us. In your generation, I think, it's the people who are in your own ideological tribe. Whatever it is, how many of us, if we're honest with ourselves, really have that kind of courage?
Second, there is the problem of rationalization — of smart people convincing themselves, and others, of some truly dumb things.
Robert McNamara, one of the original "Whiz Kids" and probably one of the brighter bulbs in 20th-century American public life, was one of the fathers of the Vietnam War when he was at the Pentagon, and of the Third World debt crisis when he was at the World Bank. Somehow, he always managed to convince the other smart people in the room that he was right. Will you be able to notice the underlying flaw in an idea when the arguments for it sound so persuasive?
Third, there is the psychological dimension.
Some people are inveterate truth seekers. They are almost congenitally willing to risk rejection, ostracism, even hatred for the sake of being right. But most people just want to belong, and the most essential elements of belonging are agreeing and conforming. Would-be belongers engage in what's known as "preference falsification," pretending to enjoy things they don't, or subscribe to ideas they secretly reject. They go along to get along, because the usual emotional companion to intellectual independence isn't pride or self-confidence. It's loneliness and sometimes crippling self-doubt.
Is that a price you are willing to pay?
All these factors are, to a large extent, the product of human nature — of our deeply ingrained instinct to join and stick with the pack no matter where it leads. But there's a fourth factor, maybe the most crucial. It's culture. Does the culture of a society, or of an institution, encourage us to stand out or to fit in; to speak up or to bury our doubts? Does it serve as a conduit to groupthink, or as an obstacle to it?
I mentioned a moment ago that all of us like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers, even if comparatively few of us really are. There's an institutional corollary. Nearly every American institution outside of certain religious orders claims to encourage open debate and — that awful cliché — thinking "outside the box." Apple's famous slogan, "Think Different," was one of the most successful ad campaigns of my lifetime.
But, at least in my experience, very few institutions truly welcome it, at least when it exposes them to any sort of pressure or criticism, much less loss of social capital or potential revenue.
Take Fox News: The network likes to think of itself as the scourge of "cancel culture," at least when the people doing the canceling are on the left. But when its own election desk called the state of Arizona for Joe Biden on election night in 2020, the network quickly fired its chief polling analyst, Chris Stirewalt, claiming, in the disingenuous words of Rupert Murdoch, that he was "overly casual" in discussing election results.
Or take MIT: After it canceled a lecture on the potential for life on exoplanets by Chicago's Dorian Abbot — not on account of Professor Abbot's scientific credentials or the substance of his talk but because his political views had incited protest — the departmental dean at MIT said, "Besides freedom of speech, we have the freedom to pick the speaker who best fits our needs."
Each of these examples — and we can all think of scores of others — is an unwitting reformulation of the classic line widely attributed to Groucho Marx: "These are my principles; if you don't like them, I have others."
Institutions and their leaders invariably say they support independent thinking and free speech — but usually when that support is easy and costs them nothing, not when it's hard and requires them to take a stand. They want provocative thinking — provided it isn't too pointed and offends only the people who don't count in their social network. They want to foster a culture of argument and intellectual challenge — so long as nobody ever says the wrong thing and feelings don't get hurt.
In short, they want to reap the benefits of free expression without accepting its costs — also known as eating your cake and having it, too.
But this doesn't always have to be the case. Institutions can, in fact, practice what they preach. They can declare principles, set a tone, announce norms and expectations — and then live up to their principles through regular practice. They can explain to every incoming class of students or new employees that they champion independent thinking and free expression in both word and deed. They can prove that they won't cave to outrage mobs and other forms of public pressure, either by canceling invited speakers or by never inviting controversial speakers in the first place.
There's a way this is done. It's called leadership. You have one magnificent example of it right on this stage, in the person of John Boyer. And you have had a historic example of it in the person of Bob Zimmer. I want to say a few words about him.
In its obituary for President Zimmer, the New York Times mentioned that, in his career as a distinguished mathematician, his main interests lay in "ergodic theory" and something called "Lie groups." I don't know what those are, either.
But I think it's notable that a man whose scholarly career was probably the most insulated from any kind of political pressure so profoundly and intuitively understood the importance of protecting intellectual freedom throughout the whole academy. To adapt Martin Luther King Jr.'s line about injustice, Bob knew that a threat to independent thinking anywhere was a threat to independent thinking everywhere, including in abstruse mathematics and the hard sciences. The stands he took when it came to hot-button questions about safe spaces, trigger warnings and controversial speakers ultimately had little to do with relatively lowly questions about university politics. They were about defending the life of the mind at its highest and furthest reaches.
Bob understood something else: that "one man with courage makes a majority." He showed other university presidents how it's done — what it means to take a stand, how to effectively communicate your beliefs, and when to put your foot down. In contrast to how MIT handled Professor Abbot's opinions, he responded to a Chicago campus campaign to have Abbot sanctioned with a reminder that "the University does not limit the comments of faculty members, mandate apologies or impose other disciplinary consequences for such comments, unless there has been a violation of University policy or the law."
People often note that the Chicago Principles have been adopted by scores of universities, and that's great. But where Bob's real legacy lies is in the academic leaders who are finally finding their nerve to stand up to the enemies of intellectual freedom. And, in doing so, he showed that a university president who was morally courageous and intellectually cogent would also attract the best students, inspirit the best faculty and regain the loyalty of doubting alumni — because leaders with courage are leaders with followers.
In short, Bob created an institutional culture that, as Salman Rushdie once said, serves as a safe space for thought, not a safe space from thought. And my question to you, both in the audience and on this stage, is whether you will take inspiration from it in your own lives and careers.
I hope you do, whether you choose to lead a private or a public life. And I hope you do so by writing your own version of "The Joy of Argument" — which is like a similarly titled book from 50 years ago, updated for an era that has become curiously and depressingly afraid of both. The joy of argument is not about "owning" or "destroying" or otherwise trying to disparage, caricature or humiliate your opponent. On the contrary, it should be about opposition and mutuality, friction and delight, the loosening of inhibitions and the heightening of concentration, playfulness and seriousness, and, sometimes even, a truly generative act.
Yes, I am comparing great arguments to great sex. But the analogy bears a brief follow-through because, in the last analysis, the only way in which we are going to create institutions in which independent thought and free expression flourish isn't through a declaration of principles, however well constructed it may be — at best, those principles can only lay the ground for what we are trying to achieve. Nor can it be on account of some worthy but abstract goal, like the health of democracy — which, again, is wonderful, but rarely motivates people to action.
We are going to succeed at the task only when we persuade others, and ourselves, that these things you've all been doing at the University of Chicago for the past few years — discussing and debating and interrogating and doubting and laughing and thinking harder and better than you ever did before — aren't the antithesis of fun. They are the essence of it. They make up the uniquely joyful experience of being authentically and expressively and unashamedly yourself and, at the same time, having a form of honest and intimate contact with others who, in their own ways, are being authentically and expressively and unashamedly themselves.
Enough with the sex analogy. You are about to go out into the real world, as real adults, with a real hand in shaping the conditions of our common life. Many of you will soon join and eventually lead great institutions, and a few of you will create significant businesses, NGOs, schools and other institutions of your own. I'm guessing not many of you are thinking: "I want to make them just like the University of Chicago," at least as far as subzero temperatures, midterms that begin the third week and the food at Valois are concerned.
But I hope you can at least say this: that, at Chicago, you learned that institutions become and remain great not because of the weight of their traditions or the perception of their prestige, but because they are places where the sharpest thinking is given the freest rein, and where strong arguments may meet stronger ones, and where "error of opinion may be tolerated" because "reason is left free to combat it" and where joy and delight are generally found at the point of contact — mental or otherwise.
If you can say this, then Chicago will have served you well. And if you can bring this mindset and this spirit to the places you will soon make your own, then you will have served Chicago even better.
Go forth, good luck, and thank you.
Bret Stephens joined the New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2017. He was previously deputy editorial page editor and foreign affairs columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post. He was the recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.