Academic Responsibility and Political Speech

With the recent publication of the University of Colorado-Boulder’s board on academic misconduct’s findings on May 6, 2000 regarding the Ward Churchill controversy, issues of academic freedom are once again brought to the forefront. Recently, the online magazine Inside Higher Ed published a series of perspectives on Churchill, centering largely around the ACTA report “How Many Word Churchills.” The principle author of that report Anne D. Neal defends her position explaning herself against recent attacks, alongside a counterpoint by Dennis Baron. I leafed through the report, which is billed as a “survey” of course catalogues at American Universities, but found no indication of the perameters or procedures employed for the survey, no statistical analysis of language used in college catalogues, only a recurring claim that the anecdotes offered therein are shockingly “ordinary.”

Some claim that the ACTA is simply another right-wing witchunt, but then-again others claim that Churchill and the majority of University professors are in fact advancing a left-wing conspiracy to undermine democratic education. I’m afraid that debate won’t get us very far. (In an interseting aside, if you Google ‘Ward Churchill academic freedom,’ you will find 375,000 entries, of which the leading are largely right-leaning, while if you Google ‘Ward Churchill academic responsibility’ you find 100,000 fewer entries, of which the leading are left-leaning.)

I did find a real debate between Churchill and David Horrowitz. Given what appears to be the rather one-sided nature of the forum in which the debate occurs, the discussion is actually fairly enlightening. It seems that the basic lines of the debate run something like this: Horrowitz and his supporters think that politics should be removed from the classroom in favor of “professional,” scientific objectivity. Classrooms, according to Horrowitz, are not the appropriate forum for educators to voice their political opinions. He includes in his list of deplorable trends on college campuses the usual women’s studies, ethnic studies, queer theory, peace studies, and somewhat surprisingly now “social work” based on a particular course at Kansas State University that really got under his skin. The former are a new crop of concentrations at major universities, they are rarely given the status of a university degree offering and even more rarely support tenured chairs. The latter, however, is a very interesting study, since Horrowitz suggests that this is part of a broad trend in the marxist-driven politics of social work. However, the above course will not be found available to social work degree seekers, but is available as a part of the Women’s Center at KSU. Horrowitz’s main point seems to be that professors are not politicians, they are not elected to their position and do not serve at the mercy of their constituents, and so they should not speak politically.

Churchill, for his part, argues, through many detailed historical accounts of academic oppression and historical prejudices being passed off as doctrine, that there is no such thing–especially in a discipline like Native American history–of abstracting political opinion from the classroom, the subject-matter itself demands a discussion of political opinions. His argument is that a “professor’s” implicit job is to “profess” his or her opinions (pay no attention to the dubious etymology behind the curtain). In the end, he claims that only those who challenge the “status quo” are submitted to the tribunal of scientific legitimacy, whereas all interpretations of history are simply the advancement of a certain perspective.

We could enter a long debate on those juicy morcels. But what is the role of the University in educating the public? The German academic paradigm, upon which the American University system is largely based, believed that by training and disciplining the imagination of the citizenry, that they would develop a robust and moral nation-state. The process was called Bildung, which carries a close resemblance to a word the German idealists use for imagination, Bildungskraft, also closely related to the German word for picture Bild. Thus, the idea was to develop a publicly shared imagination that would inform the moral actions of the people. (The idea had some rather unfortunate historical consequences.) In order to be able to do this, professors could not be beholden to a small subset of the population (a board of directors, for instance) but were conceived as stewards of the state itself, so that they could freely serve the common good.

This, of course, is the conceptual grandfather of “tenure” and the much-maligned encadrement of the “ivory tower.” As somewhat of an aside, it should not be overlooked that this debate about “academic fredom” is going to have important consequences in the related trend in Universities to eliminate tenured positions in favor of short-term contracts and adjunct positions. But in a strictly pedagogical context, University professors have the duty to connect with the opinions of their students, to stimulate them and broaden them to as maximally general a domain as possibile without loosing their particular foundations. Indeed, the particular foundation of those opinions is often emotional, that “gut reaction” that accompanies conviction. Professors are not politicians and should not try to be. But perhaps it would not be entirely inappropriate for professors to elicit the opinions of their students by articulating the sometimes controversial opinions of themselves or others.

I recommend to everyone to read some of Ward Churchill’s responses to the recent criticism (a task from which he has not backed down) because he is an articulate person, whatever the status of the charges now confirmed against him. We should also reconsider the essence of what it was that got Churchill into so much trouble. He claimed that 9-11 was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.” He did this in a rather insensitive way, referring as he did to the victims of 9-11 as “little Eichmanns,” but it is grosso modo in line with what other intellectuals and journalists had also said in the aftermath of 9-ll: for example, Jean Baudrillard, Noam Chomsky, and Robert Fisk.

For some, this may not be the highest of compliments: to be associated with these clearly neo-marxist liberal populists. But at least neither the academic credentials of Baudrillard and Chomsky, nor the journalistic credentials of Robert Frisk can be questioned. In fact, what makes all of these critiques similar is that they each ask us to question why did something like 9-11 happen to America, why the World Trade Center? Even if it is commonplace to say that the “world changed” after 9-11, wouldn’t we like to know the conditions that brought about such a change? Would it be historically and academically irresponsible to probe into that question? Perhaps you wish that Churchill–or Baudrillard for that matter–did it with a bit more tact. But that’s really a semantic issue, isn’t it?

I will leave you with what I think is a wonderful historical document in its own right and I think highlights the legitimacy of that question. It’s a video of Robert Fisk giving a talk at MIT in February of 2003 called “Ask All You Like About 9-11, But Just Don’t Ask Why.” I was at this talk, watching on a screen in one of several overflow rooms at MIT. Frisk had just come to Boston via New York City where he attended (what is now commonly agreed to be) the shameful presentation of then Secretary of State Collin Powell to the UN Security Council making the case for war in Iraq. Frisk opens with his account of this presentation and then proceeds, in his own way, to render the events that led up to 9-11, describe the current status of Iraq and demostrate the absolute incredulity of any possible connection between Sadaam Hussein and Al Qaeda. In a particularly chilling segment, he shows a series of pictures of a children’s hospital where hundreds of Iraqi children were dying (very quickly) of strange cancers. He suggests that perhaps the use of small-scale nuclear warheads (the first-Gulf’s version of the “bunker buster”) may have something to do with it. Who knows?

But maybe asking some tough questions would not have been such a bad idea after all.

Update* 02-22-2007: For historical purposes, I recently discovered this article written by someone I respect who was the  chair of the philosophy department at CU during the Churchill ordeal. His position is instructive, clear and free from politicking. And the ultimate conclusion about Churchill is not very positive.


3 thoughts on “Academic Responsibility and Political Speech

  1. There are, in my opinion, a couple of things going on here. None good. Yes ACTA is a right-wing group attempting (with total dishonesty and zero scholarship) to silence political opinions they don’t like. Yes, David Horrowitz is a nut case, presenting one ridiculous argument (colleges should simply be vocational schools where we teach facts only) to support a second ridiculous argument (academia is at the forefront of a push to make America a left-wing country – and – it is doing that). And, yes, actions of groups and people like that – and the general attempts by the United States government to impose a climate of fear to cover up their lies, have made academics frightened and pushed them into defending the few who actually speak out against the “government line” even if they are fourth rate historians like Ward Churchill.

    And the media, still not willing to admit that any competent observer would now that everything Bush and Boys says is a lie and they’ve been printing it (“we’ll invade Iraq with very few troops and win very fast because Iraq has the world’s biggest stash of weapons of mass destruction”), finds it easier to chase the flaws of one bad prof.

    The right cannot handle the simple fact that a good education makes you less likely to fall for their nonsense, nor are they smart enough to understand that most educated people can take Ward Churchill in tiny doses for his challenges to perceived wisdom, even if we laugh at his actual work.

    Still, the argument has reached the insanity level. It just ain’t pretty.

  2. I think it is near impossible for professors, particularly in the Political Science fields and such to avoid letting their views be heard in class. The only time I would have a problem is if a professor gave his opinion and didn’t give someone with an opposing point of view some opportunity to counter him or her if they so desired. I had an American Government professor who was very open about his Libertarian beliefs but he always prefaced it with “I believe” or something to that effect, he never told any of his students that his beliefs were the only acceptable ones and I really respected him for that.

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