Academic Freedom
in Times of War

On September 24, 2002, the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies hosted a public
forum on "Academic Freedom in Times of War." Members of that department commented on their perceptions of threats to the university's mission and how the academy might respond. Portions of those remarks are included here.


Comments on "Academic Freedom in Times of War"

Paul H. Rubin, Professor of Economics and Law

Harvey Klehr, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History

Why are we here?
Devin Stewart, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies

Shalom Goldman, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies

Academic freedom under attack
Kristen Brustad, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies

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Why are we here?
Devin Stewart, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies

We are here at the university to transform ourselves. We are here to learn, to create new knowledge, to refine and add to humanity’s common heritage. We are here to be excited, enriched, and changed by that knowledge. We are not here to remind ourselves leisurely of what is already familiar, to confirm our accepted ideas, or to feel good about ourselves as we already are.

Our fundamental task, in my opinion, is to learn how to argue fairly and responsibly. We are here to engage in intellectual debate and inquiry, and learning the process is much more important than adopting any individual view. This process involves being
willing to hear, analyze, and comprehend opinions we do not share. It involves understanding that debates are rarely simple or clear-cut, that they take time. Contested issues can seldom be reduced to simple binary oppositions, canned ceremonies where two pre-determined sides merely gainsay one another, where the audience serves as a cheering squad and no one learns from the exchange. We must think hard about the terms of debate and tease out the various aspects of difficult questions rather than making blanket generalizations and over-simplifications. We must argue the points rather than making emotional appeals. We must use evidence rather than hearsay. And we must abide by rules of logic and decorum.

Intelligent and effective debate requires adherence to certain ground rules. Intimidation, harassment, ad hominem attacks, and attributing guilt by association all work against proper debate. Disagreement and criticism, however, are normal aspects of debate, and it is an unfortunate aspect of our times and our culture that many of us are unable to deal with disagreement and criticism effectively. We prefer to block out opinions that disturb us or contradict our accepted views. Some go so far as to view criticism of their preconceived notions as a form of assault, claiming the right to be protected by the university or the public from disturbing ideas. But we are at the university to hear new and potentially disturbing ideas. Our task is to learn how to evaluate and criticize them logically and responsibly, as best we can, rather than avoiding them or, even worse, crying injustice at having been exposed to them in the first place.

Intelligent debates require both time and developed skills of interpretation. Unfortunately, political slogans, newspaper headlines, and sound bites do not allow for the sophistication and attention most thorny issues require. Indeed, society’s collective attention span seems to have dropped radically over the last few decades. As a result, serious debate is very difficult to pull off. The presentation of many views, the frank treatment of controversial or offensive material, humor, and irony have all become difficult and dangerous because the public’s ability to understand statements in context, to distinguish between what a speaker is reporting or critiquing and the speaker’s own point of view, is shockingly low.

Is there any hope for the university’s mission of intellectual inquiry? Of course there is. Our only limits, ultimately, are those of the human mind and human language. At present, both are terribly under-taxed—mostly being expended, as far as I can tell, on perfectly inane cell-phone conversations.

The quest for knowledge, however, requires concerted effort and often involves a certain level of discomfort. It is much easier to fall back on unreflective responses, comfortable preconceptions, and expressions of emotion than to engage in meaningful debate. Reflecting, as we are, on the mission of the university and the meaning of academic inquiry is an important part of that concerted effort. Like equality and justice, academic freedom is an ideal that confronts and often succumbs to the realities of economics, power, influence, and plain old ignorance. Its fragility notwithstanding, it must be upheld.