Tag Archives: Academic Freedom

Why I Was the Luckiest Student at Scripps College

My heart was beating and my mouth was dry. Dare I challenge my professor’s assertion that Marxism is a better economic system? As I began to speak, fifteen pairs of eyes turned my way…

Coming from a family of firm believers in the free market, I was never certain whether my opinions were my own or those of my parents. Leaving home, I looked forward to going to a college where I could encounter a range of viewpoints. Scripps gave me the perfect opportunity to challenge my most closely-held beliefs because I was on my own in a sea of people who disagreed with me. I went into my Core II class, “Eat the Rich! Capitalism and Work,” fully committed to evaluating alternative viewpoints.

I read the class materials with curiosity and an open mind, and I came to class prepared to discuss both sides of the issue. Unfortunately, I was the only one who voiced a capitalist perspective. If a class about capitalism does not address both the positives and negatives of the free market, students are not able to develop an informed opinion. While the professor claimed to address both sides of the issue, he rarely, if ever, presented the positive aspects of capitalism. Even more alarming was the fact that the socialist and Marxist readings were required, while the pro-capitalist readings were completely optional.

Now, back to that fateful moment. Overcoming my fears, I clearly stated my case. The professor scrambled for a response. That’s when I realized that I was the luckiest student at Scripps College. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to challenge my own views, evaluate my long-held beliefs, and articulate my thoughts independently. I am especially grateful that I gained the confidence to stand my ground in a room full of people who disagreed with me. Other Scripps students, however, have not been so lucky in that respect.

As John Stuart Mill said, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” I challenge Scripps professors and students to explore all perspectives of an issue, so that every student can have the same opportunities that I have had.

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Photography by Wes Edwards.

Let’s Talk about Academic Freedom

In a recent Harvard Crimson article, Harvard student Sandra Korn endorses the abridgment of academic freedom in order to prevent the publication of research promoting or justifying oppression. Her view is not particularly remarkable, and it certainly isn’t novel, but it is worth correcting nonetheless.

The constitutional case for academic freedom is clear. In Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957) the Supreme Court accepted Justice Frankfurter’s rationale in Wieman v. Updegraff that “unwarranted inhibition [of academic freedom]…has an unmistakable tendency to chill that free play of the spirit which all teachers ought to cultivate and practice…Teachers must…be exemplars of open-mindedness and free inquiry. They must have the freedom of responsible inquiry, by thought and action, into the meaning of social and economic ideas, into the checkered history of social and economic dogma.” Later, in Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967), the Court also upheld academic freedom and freedom of association in light of the First Amendment.

Both Sweezy and Keyishian were explicit constitutional prohibitions on McCarthy-esque purges, and invoked the phrase “academic freedom” in particular. Because Korn’s vision of “academic justice” requires censorship of professors’ publications on the basis of their political views, it is analogous to McCarthy’s witch-hunt of socialists. One can assume then that Korn does not find the constitutional argument for academic freedom compelling. So, in the interest of attempting to persuade Korn to revise her beliefs on the subject, I’ll articulate a philosophical argument for strict First Amendment protection of academic freedom.

Korn argues that “academic justice” requires censoring academic publications in order to ensure they aren’t oppressive. This is sort-of intuitive at a very superficial level – after all, oppression is bad, and we should prevent bad things when possible. Furthermore, Korn contends that “no one ever has ‘full freedom’ in research and publication…what papers are accepted for publication are always contingent on political priorities.” But this semblance of a syllogism and unapologetic naturalistic fallacy does not bear out. Korn ought to take a philosophy class.

Korn’s chief example of an oppressive academic publication is Harvard Professor Richard Herrnstein’s 1971 article “I.Q.,” which makes the claim (which would later be reiterated in Herrnstein’s famous work The Bell Curve), that intelligence is primarily hereditary and varies by race. According to Korn, Herrnstein concludes in “I.Q.” that “social programs intended to establish a more egalitarian society were futile.”

Even granting her this caricature of Herrnstein’s thesis, Korn’s strategy of promoting “academic justice” by ensuring that research that promotes or justifies oppression isn’t published is highly problematic. Any attempt to censor politically incorrect views creates problems for Korn’s argument because any method for distinguishing between “sufficiently oppressive” and “trivially oppressive” speech is ultimately arbitrary.

How will one go about delineating between views that are sufficiently oppressive to be censored, and views that, while marginally oppressive, don’t cross whatever arbitrary “oppressiveness threshold” one constructs? For instance, is this article the sort of thing that ought to be censored? I am, after all, openly endorsing the publication of exactly the kinds of oppressive academic works Korn opposes. While certain kinds of academic speech, for instance Holocaust-denial, would clearly fall on the “oppressive” end of Korn’s spectrum, few such cases are so straightforward.

The erection of a litmus test for acceptable ideology is a messy, oppressive endeavor. Remember, for instance, McCarthy-era Red-baiting. The question: “Who must agree that an academic work is oppressive in order for it to be justly censored?” is unanswerable, and itself suspect. A liberal commitment to inclusion of conflicting voices renders Korn’s principle untenable in theory and in practice.

That being said, Korn has captured the germ of an important issue. Some academic works, like Ward Churchill’s essay comparing the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to “little Eichmanns,” clearly perpetuate unjust views. However, I contend that, instead of censoring these publications, one must counter oppressive views through reasoned debate. Academic discourse over controversial publications is not only an effective means to combat oppressive viewpoints, but, more important, the only way to avoid well-intentioned, but morally bankrupt, censorship of the Joseph McCarthy variety.

Oppressive viewpoints are definitionally false viewpoints, so the task of undermining an academic’s arguments for an unjustified belief should, generally, be an easy one. The primary feature of reasoned discourse is that it tends to get at the truth, including those truths that undermine the arguments in offensive academic publications. Herrnstein’s work on IQ is a case in point. In an article summarizing statistical findings post-Bell Curve, UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp notes that sociological research on the IQ debate has concluded that, while inherited genetic makeup is the largest determining factor on intelligence, socioeconomic factors and access to quality education also play a significant role. Taken together, research on this nature/nurture debate supports the conclusion that social justice policies like educational reform still have a significant role to play in levelling the playing field for the least well-off.

The philosophical problem of identifying which academic publications are, according to Korn’s argument, “unjust,” and the practical problem of assembling commissions to evaluate whether a particular publication meets whatever standards of injustice Korn might try to outline are convincing reasons to opt for an inviolable right to academic freedom. Though, clearly, some publications seem to perpetuate just views and others unjust views, most academic works inhabit an uncertain gray area. Consequently, rulings on the “justice” of a particular academic work are highly susceptible not only to human error, but to the broader possibility that our current conception of “academic justice” is, as Joseph McCarthy’s was, just plain wrong. In light of these human failings, and understanding the history of academic censorship in this country, we would do well to be wary of the notion of censorship itself.

Therefore, the appropriate response to academic works that disseminate unjust viewpoints is not the crude strategy of moral browbeating embodied in censorship, but an exposition of reasons an unjust view is unjustified. The right strategy in combating oppression is not to silence the opposition, but to engage in debate and invalidate oppressive viewpoints with factual evidence. One must remind the public not only that academics who endorse oppressive views are wrong, but also why those academics are wrong. While the risk that censorship may be abused is ever-present, engaging in moral argument to refute an offensive academic publication is, ethically speaking, risk-free.

In Defense of the Independent

The Claremont Independent has come under fire recently. Not only were several copies of our most recent issue physically torn apart on the Scripps campus for brandishing the sign of the devil (the drawing on the cover was of the GOP elephant), but the magazine also found itself being torn apart within the opinion pages of The Student Life, where one columnist opined on what he found most “incredulous” about the Independent.

It is worth pointing out that we believe it a complete coincidence that the columnist only stopped to share his thoughts about the Independent after it published a not-so-flattering rebuttal to one of his previous columns, in which he urged the Claremont Colleges to join in the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions. But, ulterior motives aside, the author’s criticisms of the magazine hold both little weight and scant coherence. From the top:

First, the author notes his disappointment that “the magazine was not at all the source of libertarian or even classically conservative journalism that it claimed to be,” which assumes that we claim to be anything at all. If the author had taken the time to read our mission statement, talk to any of our magazine’s leadership or staff, or even read closely the name of the magazine (ClaremontIndependent”), this initial disappointment could have easily been avoided.

Second, the author censures the Independent as “…just another digest of popular Republican Party talking points,” no doubt referring to our piece about Republicans’ increasing odds of taking back the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections; however, this criticism does not have a leg on which to stand. Analyzing trends, polling data, and candidates to form an election forecast is hardly the same thing as espousing “Republican Party talking points.” In fact, since publishing our article, The Economist, The Atlantic, and Nate Silver’s “Big Data” website, 538, have published articles concurring in our view. We look forward to an upcoming TSL column deriding these media outlets as nothing more than purveyors of “Republican Party talking points.”

Third, and perhaps most bizarre, the author claims that he – by taking the stance that the Claremont Colleges should boycott Israeli universities – is the true standard-bearer of the classically conservative spirit, and the Independent does “a disservice to the real principles of conservatism and libertarianism when they champion the intellectually bankrupt Republican platform.” Furthermore, the author blames this perversion of “true” conservatism, to which perversion the Independent has purportedly succumbed, on none other than Ronald Reagan (for reasons unknown).

Rather than squarely address the rebuttal that the Independent wrote of his column, the author shifts the battle to one over undefined terminology. This shift to the undefined and infinitely flexible has a rhetorical purpose: it helps the author avoid a fact-based discussion and replace the real debate with a series of random and incoherent bursts of unsubstantiated assertion that simply tend to shut-down understanding, if only because the reader can’t imagine where to try to begin. But try we must.

The only hint that the author gives about what he might mean by “conservative” is that he appears to see liberty as its end goal: “…the Claremont Colleges should embrace the ASA boycott because in doing so, they will be contributing to the preservation of what the liberal arts are truly about: liberty.” But if the supposedly “conservative” principle of boycotting Israeli universities is simply a means toward the end goal of “liberty” (a dubious proposition through and through, but we’ll play along with it), then that would not make the principle conservative in the classical sense at all. Rather, it would almost by definition be liberal in the classical sense (or based on ideas rooted in liberty).

Furthermore, perhaps it is worth asking from whence the author gets the bold idea that pre-Reagan conservatives often took anti-Israel stances. Even if one were to take his claim that perversion of the Republican Party began with Reagan at face value, then would the author have us believe that, say, Richard Nixon was a relentless antagonist of Israel? That’s a somewhat curious suggestion. It is now well known that President Nixon – a die-hard, pre-Reagan Republican – threatened thermo-nuclear war (by raising the alert status of U.S. nuclear forces worldwide) to protect Israel and to deter Soviet intervention on the side of an attacking Egyptian army during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Is that the move of a conservative who would want to boycott Israeli academics? Did the writings of the influential and legendary conservative scholar Irving Kristol, who is also Jewish, indicate some sort of pre-Reagan maliciousness toward Israel? Or maybe the author believes that the father of modern American conservatism and National Review founder William F. Buckley, who was so deeply fond of Israel that he proposed in 1972 that it become the 51st state, secretly held very anti-Israeli sentiments.

Both in the perfectly malleable and therefore incoherent definition of conservatism he advances and in the entire history he completely overlooks, the author leads his helpless readers on a disorienting tour through the unexplored recesses of his own intellectual idiosyncrasies. But perhaps more important, this debate illustrates exactly why academic freedom should not be treated like just another piece on a political chessboard. By engaging with the author and pointing out the blatant flaws in his reasoning, we actually do more to alleviate fallacious speech than by allowing it to fester beneath the surface unchecked (as Clay Spence expands upon in this issue’s cover article). If the purpose of the liberal arts is to liberate the masses, then its instrument in doing so is truth. And we can only arrive at truth when the free exchange of ideas goes unfettered and academic freedom reigns supreme.

[This article has been edited to correct a misquote in the article referenced. The Claremont Independent regrets this error.]