A challenge to Professor Sarma and to ourselves

What to say of Professor Sarma’s letter? Written by a University of Chicago graduate from roughly the time I was there, it demonstrated the attitude I’d criticized. It threw put-downs in the name of an abusive truth.

At the same time, it called for argument. So let’s argue: What kind of school should we want?

To begin, Sarma’s letter misstated the category of libel. Libel is a false claim that does damage to an institution or person. My 30-year-old experience is as true as my imperfect mind can make of the evidence that formed it and will not harm either institution, which can handle criticism.

The real issue is criticism of institutions when they do not live up to their core values. Case Western Reserve University should be a school where we can criticize CWRU because we think it is good enough to handle it. The letter did not seem to recognize that part of my criticism of my alma maters is that I think that they can do better.

What kind of school should we want? The letter implied no regard for growth or goodness as values. Strangely, it used the logic that Sarma’s approach was better (i.e., more “good”) and generative (i.e., producing “growth”). Thus, the letter contradicted itself. But more importantly, actually growing up in responsibility, relationships and soulfulness is what life’s about. Should we stay immature and flounder in our agency?

Most interestingly, the letter turned my main idea inside-out: A university has an ethos; it is not merely a collection of individuals. I did not criticize a single individual. In fact, I praised some (as friends and mentors). The question is, at CWRU, what should our ethos be?

In my experience, Yale University did not display social justice in its core behavior as an institution. Social justice appeared to be an optional value that individuals on the side could pursue. Yale did not seem to act toward the city of New Haven in a way that showed that Yale was trying to be in a right relation with New Haven, especially its poverty, and to share Yale’s wealth, knowledge and most importantly educational mission with New Haven. I found that all this was picked up by undergraduate student culture, where enjoying one’s privilege was the norm and where people who cared about social justice were at the best going “above and beyond” (rather than doing what is basic), and at the worst were making the experience of college unpleasant. By contrast, I think of some schools where social justice work is a requirement.

In my experience, the University of Chicago did not make any publicly obvious effort to curtail professors who were verbally abusive to students. I never heard of it. The very idea that a professor could be verbally abusive was not publicly discussed. There were no departments on campus clearly known by me to have environments favored by the university for their respectful interactions. Departments known to display intellectual abuse were in no way sanctioned or even noticed. Rather, they were frequently considered normative, and so students internalized both fear and snobbery. By contrast, I think of schools where students and faculty create the curriculum together.

A philosophy of “audacious irreverence” should welcome norm-bucking criticism of the institutions that formed it. Professor Sarma’s reply missed what was going on in my letter. It wasn’t flattery—it was a challenge. CWRU really can be better than the places I described from long ago. I challenge Professor Sarma to organize a wide-ranging forum for students and faculty to discuss a new form of education that is not being servile to the Ivies.

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer
Professor in Ethics