Notes & Comments April 2005
A thank-you to Ward Churchill
On one positive outcome of an unfortunate academic fiasco.
We suspect that most of our readers will be familiar with the case of Ward Churchill, the professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado whose comparison of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann sparked outrage across the nation. Professor Churchill made the comparison in an essay he wrote in 2001, shortly after the murderous attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. But his remarks did not attract much attention until he was invited to speak at Hamilton College in upstate New York and some public-spirited individuals unearthed and publicized his rebarbative anti-American effusion. We first reported on the case on January 26 on Armavirumque, The New Criterions weblogwhich, by the way, is a source of commentary and reflection by the editors that we heartily recommend to readers who avail themselves of the internet. In the following weeks, we returned several times to the issue, which by the end of January had exploded in the media. Citing security concerns, Joan Stewart, the president of Hamilton, cancelled Professor Churchills appearance at the eleventh hour. By then, Hamilton had suffered its second major public relations disaster in as many months. Last autumn, as we reported in our December 2004 issue, Hamilton had invited Susan Rosenberg, a convicted felon and former member of the Weather Underground, to teach a seminar at the college; the outcry over that fiasco eventually forced Rosenbergs withdrawal.
In themselves, the Hamilton follies are scarcely noteworthy. The story that American colleges embrace left-wing radicals with no discernible scholarly accomplishment is a dog-bites-man piece of newswhich is to say that it is not news at all but merely business as usual. Nevertheless, the controversy over the Rosenberg and Churchill episodes marked the beginning of a new chapter in the publics understanding of what goes on in American universities. Whether the public will have the tenacity to read on and draw the appropriate conclusions remains to be seen. But what we have witnessed in the last month or so is the opening of a fissure in the weary complacency with which the public has habitually regarded those institutions entrusted with educating young adults. In this sense, the episodes of Susan Rosenberg and Ward Churchill represent not only a scandal but also an opportunity. For the first time since the onslaught of the 1960s, a critical mass seems to be forming against the ready acquiescence to the politically correct imperatives of academic radicalism.
As we have noted in our commentary on Armavirumque, this new resistance is crystallizing around two issues. One revolves around the distinction between free speech (the right to peaceful political dissent) and academic freedom (the more limited right to pursue, teach, and publish about the truth). This is a distinction that was often lost in the controversy over Ward Churchill. As the sociologist Edward Shils once noted, academic freedom is the freedom to seek and transmit the truth. It does not, Shils insisted, extend to the conduct of political propaganda in teaching.
Academic freedom is the freedom of university teachers to perform their academic obligations of teaching and research. These are obligations to seek and communicate the truth according to their best lights. Academic freedom is not the freedom of academic individuals to do just anything, to follow any impulse or desire, or to say anything that occurs to them. It is the freedom to do academic things: to teach the truth as they see it on the basis of prolonged and intensive study, to discuss their ideas freely with their colleagues, to publish the truth as they have arrived at it by systematic methodical research and assiduous research.That, Shils concludes, is academic freedom proper. A number of corollaries follow. One is that one assess academic things according to academic or intellectual criteria, regardless of the persons political or religious beliefs, his or her sex, ethnic origin, personal qualities, kinship connections, friendship or enmity toward the individual or the work assessed. It also follows (and here what Shils has to say is particularly relevant to the case of Ward Churchill) that academic freedom is limited in certain ways. For example, An academic is not free to falsify the record of his observations; he is not free to forge or misrepresent the contents of documents and inscriptions. Shils also goes on to argue that although Academic freedom includes political freedom, it is nonetheless desirable that teachers should not expound their own political or moral preferences and values in their classes, and, if they do, that they should take care to distinguish evaluative judgments from their statements of fact.
The distinction between free speech and the more limited privilege of academic freedom is not novel. But it is one that Joan Stewart, like many well-meaning people, has difficulty wrapping her mind around. In an open letter to the Hamilton community, Stewart invoked Hamiltons belief that open-ended and free inquiry is essential to educational growth. Well, fine. But surely a college president should understand that open-ended and free inquiry is one thing, political agitation and proselytizing another. Our society provides many outlets for the expression of political opinions. Thank God for that. It has also taken care to provide for educational institutions whose purpose is learning, scholarship, and pedagogy. Pace President Stewart, academic freedom is not the same thing as free speech. It is a more limited freedom, designed to nurture intellectual integrity and to protect those engaged in intellectual inquiry from the intrusion of partisan passions. The very limitation of academic freedom is part of its strength. By excluding the political, it makes room for the pursuit of truth.
This is a point that is articulated well by the British philosopher Kenneth Minogue in The Concept of the University.
Universities were based, like all social institutions, on something valuedon a value judgment, to use the current jargon. They were based (if I may use an old formula) on the disinterested pursuit of truth. It was this pursuit, as it were, that constituted the moral basis of their authority. They had no direct concern with justice, and no one was ever sent to a university to make him courageous. Their excellence was to be found in their limits. Academia dealt in the virtues of truth and exactitude.What happened? In the 1960s, universities collapsed in the face of a little juvenile swagger. They never recovered, most of them, and now Hamilton College (among many others) is reaping the fruit. Which leads us to the second, and more general, issue raised by the Hamilton follies, an issue we have often adverted to in these pages: the politicization of higher education.
There are plenty of reasons that the University of Colorado might wish to dismiss Churchill from his tenured position. As has been widely reported, his record is a tapestry of fabrications and misrepresentation. But in the end, Ward Churchill is a red herring, a distraction from the real issue. At Hamilton, the forces of politicization are centered in large part around the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture, the left-wing, activist organization that was responsible for inviting Rosenberg and Churchill to campuses and which for more than a decade has been a force for transforming a liberal education (I use liberal in the old sense) into a form of political indoctrination.
What has become increasingly obvious in the aftermath of the Hamilton College follies is that the politicization advocated by the Kirkland Project at Hamilton College is also advocated by similar organizations at many, indeed most, other institutions of higher education in this country. Higher education has long been an important front in the culture war that began in the 1960s, a war whose aim is to remake American society according to a left-wing, antinomian blueprint.
The Kirkland Project is one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of institutions on college campuses bent on radicalizing American society by betraying the intellectual and moral standards whose general observance they depend upon for their very existence. The silver lining in the sordid affair of Ward Churchill will be fully revealed when attention shifts from Churchill to the Kirkland Project, and from the Kirkland Project to the repudiation of liberal learning, academic standards, and moral probity that informs so much of what infects cultural life, especially academic cultural life, today. That, we are happy to say, seems to be happening. Susan Rosenberg and Ward Churchill were wake-up calls. More and more parents, alumni, trustees, and college donors seem to have been fully, if also rudely, awakened. For this, we owe Ward Churchill some thanks. At least in part because of him, retaking the universitieswhich has seemed like a pipe dream since the 1960snow seems like a manageable, if still difficult, task.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 8, on page 1
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