Academic freedom is under attack from the right and the left

posted by Jeff | Thursday, January 19, 2023, 7:40 PM | comments: 0

When I was a student at Ashland University, the university housed (and still houses) a political non-profit organization in the library penthouse. I say "quasi" because university officers sit on its board, and two of its board members sit on the university board. It is a rightward, conservative organization that at the time lacked diversity and seemed to have an outsized influence on the political science program. Worse yet, they brought is some big deal speakers while I was there that the general student population was not invited to see, specifically Margaret Thatcher and Dan Quayle. Admittedly, the latter never seemed interesting, but he was a vice president regardless. As the resident liberal newspaper columnist, I called them out pretty frequently as being one-sided and limiting legitimate discourse, and the organization never responded directly.

On the flip side, we had a course that I think was required, called "Race and Ethnic Relations." The subject matter was what it sounds like, and it was taught by a veteran who spent time on the front lines of the civil rights movement in the 60's. Despite growing up until 14 in an inner city environment that consisted mostly of minorities, I don't think I really appreciated the struggles of that era until I took that course. It was the first time I had ever heard the term "institutional bias," and that was in 1993. It was one of the best classes I took in college, with a lot of very spirited discussions. I looked forward to it because I knew I would gain historical perspective that I lacked.

One university, two sides of academic freedom. On one side, discourse was stifled and limited, and on the other, it was unrestricted and sometimes made people uncomfortable. I would argue that the latter is what learning is about, but we seem to suck at it as adults.

Academic freedom is currently under attack from a number of vectors, and they're not simply right or left. Obviously the biggest effort from the right can be found right here in Florida, where a law essentially says you can't teach about things that might make white hetero people feel bad. A judge has already blocked it from higher education, another from employer enforcement, and it's still working through the courts for K-12. It obviously violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Now the state wants to block AP African American Studies from being taught, without any explanation of why the class, which is still being piloted and refined by the College Board, violates the law.

But it's not strictly a phenomenon from fascist right-wing politicians. Sometimes it comes from with in institutions that are generally regarded as left leaning. A former director of Human Rights Watch was denied a fellowship at Harvard, allegedly because of things he said that were critical of Israel. The man is Jewish and his father fled the Nazis, so the suggestion that he is antisemitic because he's critical of Israeli policy on human rights seems a little over the top, especially in an academic setting.

That's not the only story in this category recently. An art professor from a small school was essentially fired for showing, with warnings about the sensitivity around it, an image of the Prophet Muhammad, which is prohibited by Islam. The university responded to the complaint of a student that found it deeply offensive, and the school quickly labeled the professor as Islamophobic. I can't possibly relate to the student, obviously, but I thought that the Council on American-Islamic Relations took a thoughtful position on the subject:

Although we strongly discourage showing visual depictions of the Prophet, professors who analyze ancient paintings for an academic purpose are not the same as Islamophobes who show such images to cause offense.

In all three of these academic situations, intent matters. If we make the leap in the presence of discourse straight to hate, we fail to understand each other and the basic anthropology that put us where we are. The gulf between legitimate discourse and demagoguery should at least be apparent in an academic setting. American society would benefit from it too. To enable discourse isn't granting legitimacy to morally inequivalent positions. And I don't mean that in a Tucker Carlson "I'm just asking questions" bullshit way.

We all have a right to avoid things that interfere with our well-being. You'll get no argument from me about that. But discomfort over academic discourse does not share intent with bigotry.


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